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Father, 2 children found safe after more than 2 days in swampy woods of Congaree National Park

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CONGAREE NATIONAL PARK, S.C. - Search crews have found a father and his two children who had been missing for more than two days in the vast woods and swamps of the Congaree National Park in South Carolina, officials said Tuesday.

Dana Soehn of the National Park Service said rangers had located J.R. Kimbler, his 10-year-old son, Dakota, and 6-year-old daughter, Jade. The three — who carried no food, water or camping equipment — got lost after taking to the trails on Saturday afternoon for what was apparently intended to be a short hike.

"They were all OK," Soehn said at a news conference. "They looked remarkably well."

The three were taken to a local hospital for observation, officials said.

Eighty searchers from nearly a dozen agencies searched for the family in the 27,000-acre site since the father sent a text message late Saturday saying they were lost. Crews flew over the entire park, but Soehn said ground searchers combed 9,000 acres on foot and by vehicle before finding the family.

Officials closed the park Monday afternoon during the search. An investigative team from the National Park Service checked on possible leads outside the park.

Park Ranger Jared Gurtler said he was elated to hear Kimbler respond when he called out his name at around 4:30 a.m. Tuesday during his morning rounds of the park's trails. Gurtler was about two miles from the visitors' centre where the family entered the park.

"I was just hollering names," said Gurtler. "They all hollered back."

When they spotted each other on opposite sides of a stream, Gurtler tossed over three bottles of water. After meeting up, Kimbler told the officer he had been on the boardwalk that winds through the park but left it to follow another trail when he got lost.

Kimbler had taken the children to the park in his taxi cab. The vehicle was found parked near the visitor's centre Monday.

The family had no food or water when they were rescued, but Kimbler said they drank water they found in the park. Meanwhile, mild weather — with low temperatures in the 60s — helped the family endure three nights in the wild.

"I don't know if it's luck," Gurtler said, of finding the family just hours before storms move into the area Tuesday. "It just worked out, fortunately, in our favour."

The park has marked trails, but beyond the paths are tangles of old growth trees, swamps and underbrush. The land has become even more rugged since an ice storm in February knocked down thousands of trees and limbs.

Tammy Ballard, the children's mother, was at the park during the search, walking down trails, calling their names.

"It's been tough," Ballard told the AP in the hours before the children were found. "I see so many footprints out there."

The park was to reopen to visitors later in the day.

Kimbler had been out of his children's lives for a few years but recently started to get them on the weekends, said Chris Ballard, stepbrother of the children. The trip to Congaree National Park was the first time he had been out there.

___

Jeffrey Collins in Columbia contributed to this report. Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP

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