ARCADIA, Mo. â€“ Thirsty, dirty and tired after spending two days and nights barely clothed in the wet, chilly woods of Mark Twain National Forest, 3-year-old Joshua Childers was ready to go home.
The boy was lying on the ground of a hollow near a creek bottom Wednesday afternoon when a volunteer searcher spied his bare bottom.
"Hey, bud!" called out Donnie Halpin, a 57-year-old construction worker from nearby Fredericktown, who wasn't sure whether the grimy figure was even alive.
But Joshua sat right up and grinned at his rescuer.
"You ready to go home?" Halpin asked.
"Yeah," said Joshua.
The boy was wet and only wearing a T-shirt and one tennis shoe. Halpin called 911, then wrapped the child in his shirt, scooped him up and carried him about a half-mile to a house.
"He hung on to me pretty tight," said Halpin, who didn't have any water for the child but gave him some candy. "Outside of a few scratches, he was in really good shape."
Joshua had slipped out of his family's mobile home near Arcadia in rural southeast Missouri around 11:30 a.m. Monday, while his father slept and his mother talked on the phone.
Terry Schulte, the boy's grandmother, told KSDK-TV that Joshua told her he was on his way to visit her. She lives about five miles from his home, and he was found covered in ticks about a half-mile away. Somewhere along the way he lost his pull-up diaper and one of his sneakers, which searchers found near a pond Monday.
Halpin discovered Joshua around 4 p.m. Wednesday while walking along an all-terrain vehicle trail about three miles from the boy's home, after first spotting some stray dogs sniffing at something.
"I'm going to put him up for the Grizzy Adams Award, send him bear-hunting with a stick," his overjoyed father, Adam Childers, told reporters, marveling at his son's survival skills.
"It's undescribable how grateful we are," Childers said. "I mean, you doubt if God's actually with you for awhile, and then something like this happens, and you know he's there."
Madison County Sheriff David Lewis said searchers had been growing increasingly pessimistic about their chances of finding Joshua alive. He figured three days was about the limit for the boy's survival in the wild without food and water.
"It's a miracle," Lewis said. "I'm so happy, you can't believe it."
Hundreds of volunteers from as far away as St. Louis, 100 miles to the northeast, came to help in the search. So did professional search and rescue crews from dozens of agencies. The Missouri State Highway Patrol brought in planes. The state Water Patrol brought in divers and sonar. Dozens of dogs, horses, ATVs and even donkeys scattered in the miles around the tiny home that sits along the wild, rocky terrain of the Mark Twain National Forest.
The area is home to bears, mountain lions and snakes. Heavy rain Tuesday night and Wednesday morning swelled creeks in the area.
"I don't know how he did it," Adam Childers said. "I don't know grown men that could do it. But all I can say is he's a tough little bugger."
Doctors have told him that his son is a little dehydrated but otherwise fine, Childers said. The child was evaluated and listed in fair condition, first at Iron County Hospital and later at Jefferson Regional Medical Center in Crystal City, where he was transferred because it has a larger pediatric unit.
The boy has been asking for milk and hot dogs since his rescue, Childers said.