It was supposed to be a fun day spent picking berries in the woods.
Instead, the weekend became a nightmare for Tykao Hazard and Kris Benoit, whose 4-year-old son George wandered out of the family van and vanished into the woods near Mackenzie, B.C., about 180 kilometres north of Prince George, for a harrowing 32 hours.
On Saturday, Hazard and a friend drove to the berry picking spot, a place she’d been visiting since she was a little girl.
It was drizzling outside when they arrived at around 12:30 p.m. and George, dressed in a long-sleeved shirt, sweatpants, runners and a rainproof coat, was groggy — more interested in napping than picking.
So Hazard moved him to the floor of the van, where he could sleep more comfortably, and told him to “come find us when he woke up.” After all, they’d be just a few metres away from the van, well within view.
Just 10 minutes later, Hazard’s friend went to the van to check on the sleeping boy.
He was gone.
Hazard headed down one path, her friend down another.
“I was just thinking, I have to find him,” she said tearfully over the phone on Monday.
Panic sets in
The area they were searching is beyond a turn to Lions Lake Campground, and past some train tracks. The trees and low bushes are dense, thick with blueberries.
Five minutes later, panic began to set in. Hazard phoned her father. The next call was to 911.
Over the next few hours, RCMP, conservation officers, search and rescue teams, and hundreds of volunteers began combing the area. Dogs sniffed the van seats to pick up George’s scent.
His name was called over loudspeakers and officers roamed the area on quad bikes.
Hazard was told to stay near the van where she and her friend were certain they heard George’s voice.
“I was damn sure I heard him say ‘Mom’ once, very clear,” she said.
“But [my friend] was trying to keep it in our minds [that] it could be our brains playing tricks on us because there were a few times we thought we heard him and we both ran into the woods calling for him.”
At one point, a train roared by.
“I knew he loved he loved trains, I kept yelling at him to go towards the sound of the train,” she said.
A couple hours into the search, Hazard made the phone call she’d dreaded the most: to George’s father Kris, from whom she is separated.
“I didn’t know how to tell him that I lost our child,” she said.
As Saturday evening stretched into Saturday night, RCMP began telling volunteers to head home for the night.
‘[That] almost sent me into a panic until someone assured me they were going to keep looking all night,” said Hazard.
‘My legs buckled’
Hazard said she slept a fitful hour or two. It rained almost all night.
By noon the next day, George had been missing for 24 hours. Hazard was told the chances her son was still alive had diminished significantly in that time.
Finally, on Sunday, some hope — one of the searchers found a child’s footprints near the train tracks. A professional tracker was brought in and determined the tracks had been made at some point on Saturday night.
“When all hope felt lost, someone came and told me they were definitely George’s tracks,” said Hazard.
Then finally, just before 8 p.m. on Sunday night, Hazard was called over to the main search and rescue trailer.
“I think the only thing that registered in my mind from what they said was ‘he was found alive,'” she said.
“My legs buckled.”
George was found by the shores of Williston Lake, cold, wet and exhausted, but unhurt.
The boy was plucked out of the B.C. wilderness via helicopter and transported directly to the hospital in Mackenzie.
He said he spent most of the night awake, eating blueberries. He’d heard his mother telling him to head toward the sounds of the train.
When he got lost and heard strangers calling for him, he got scared and hid.
“He is doing amazing, he was cold, but he warmed up very fast. He wasn’t crying when I met him at the hospital,” said Hazard.
Hazard said she regrets leaving George in the van, and that she’ll do things differently in the future. But she said countless friends have told her not to dwell on it, that it happens to every parent.
Asked why he left the van and headed into the woods, George said he went to help pick berries, as his mother had told him.
“He was trying to find me.”