(ABC)– A woman who spent five days stranded in the Grand Canyon described the “true panic” of her harrowing experience in an exclusive interview with ABC News.
“I was panicking and crying and sobbing — I was a mess,” said Amber Vanhecke, 24, about the moment she first realized she was lost without GPS or cell reception.
Originally from Denton, Texas, Vanhecke was sight-seeing by herself near the Southern rim of the Grand Canyon when her GPS instructed her to make a wrong turn, and lead her through increasingly tough terrain.
An experienced Girl Scout and outdoor adventurer, Vanhecke had traveled by herself numerous times before and visited other national parks including Yosemite, Yellowstone, Sequoias, and Redwoods.
“I planned out my itinerary, had it posted on Facebook and stuff and off I went with some non-perishables and water,” Vanhecke, a college student, said of the spring break trip she’d been planning since January. She left Denton and spent a day in Carlsbad, New Mexico, before driving the rest of the night to the Grand Canyon.
During her drive, she followed her GPS from a highway to a dirt road. But she eventually came across a more primitive road with grass and cacti.
“The problem was, the road wasn’t there,” she recalled. Vanhecke said that eventually her GPS stopped working entirely and her car ran out of gas.
As it started to get dark and she knew she was lost, Vanhecke started to worry about her spotty cell phone signal and GPS, which eventually stopped working. She was able to briefly get through to a 911 dispatcher in a moment of desperation.
“He said ‘what’s the nature of your emergency?’ and I said ‘please help me’ because I was panicking and crying and sobbing.” But then the call dropped.
“And that was the first moment I felt true panic,” she said.
Using her outdoors knowledge, she slept until daylight and re-assessed her situation, but she said that day “no one drove by” past the road she was on.
The second day she made an SOS sign as well as a signal fire hoping that a helicopter or small plane would see her distress signal, both survival skills she said she learned as a girl scout and from movies and television shows.
“I felt very disconnected from just everything and everyone,” Vanhecke said.
She initially thought a search party would be sent after her, but it soon became apparent that she might be on her own.
“[A]pparently there was a miscommunication somewhere and no one was looking for me at all,” she said.
It dawned on Vanhecke that she would have to take her rescue into her own hands. “I knew I wouldn’t be found unless I did something to signal A, I was in distress, or B, rescue myself.”
On her fourth day she hiked toward a road to search for a cell signal and was passed by a large red truck. “I chased them as far as I could,” but she said “they didn’t hear me and they didn’t see me.”
“I woke up on the fifth day feeling pretty hopeful,” Vanhecke said. Trekking a tiring 11 miles from her car and calling 911 every few minutes, she finally got through to help.
“I immediately stopped where I was because I didn’t want to lose it,” she said as she attempted to calmly explain her situation and location to authorities. The call cut out and she could not get a signal back out, so she walked back to her car hoping her brief call had this time done enough.
After 119 excruciating hours, a helicopter rescue crew spotted her car and the SOS sign, but Vanhecke was about 20 miles east of it. Fortunately, she had left a note explaining that she was out searching for help and to look for her or wait.
Authorities applauded Vanhecke’s ingenuity and her ability to properly implement survival training skills.
“She did a lot of things that helped her survive,” said Jonah Nieves, a member of the Air Rescue team with the Arizona Department of Public Safety. “Those notes were clues and those clues led us to where she was.”
When the crew eventually found Vanhecke, she was treated for exposure and dehydration, and then transported via helicopter to a trauma center in Flagstaff, Arizona, authorities said.
One day after being rescued, Vanhecke resumed her sightseeing.
“There’s this word that really suits me — it’s called Fernweh,” Vanhecke said. “It means a longing for places you’ve never been and that’s basically me. It’s like wanderlust, but sounds fancier.”
When asked how she kept it together, Vanhecke said, “I had stuff to do.”
“Besides, I couldn’t do that to my sister or my mom or my dad,” she said. “I just felt like I had a lot unfinished, but I just wasn’t going to give up.”