A 14-year-old boy has miraculously been found alive after being lost in dense Victorian bushland for almost three days.
William Callaghan, who has autism and is non-verbal, was forced to survive alone in near freezing temperatures after becoming separated from his family while on a walk at Mt Disappointment.
The teen was found alive just before 1pm today, by experienced bushman Ben Gibbs.
Mr Gibbs, who grew up in the area, found him about 20 minutes off the track, and found William a little deeper in the bush than previous searches had covered.
“He was just about 15 metres from me, just standing there, he was really angelic just standing,” Mr Gibbs told reporters.
“He looked in reasonable health, he wasn’t shivering too bad, he didn’t have socks on so I put some socks on him and a jacket. I gave him some chocolate.”
Mr Gibbs said the teen was very happy when he gave him the chocolate.
The search volunteer said he was singing as he was walking through the woods in the hopes of drawing William out.
He said when he found him he started talking to him about Thomas the Tank Engine to relax him as he put a jacket and shoes on him.
“I am the one who stumbled across him but everybody found him, all of the volunteers and all of the search and rescue. It was everybody’s’ effort,” Mr Gibbs said.
Police said William is in good health and is receiving medical attention.
This is how his tale of survival unfolded:
MONDAY, 8 JUNE
William was on a walk with his family at Mount Disappointment, about 60km north of Melbourne on Monday afternoon.
During the walk he raced ahead of the rest of the family and became separated from them.
He was last seen on the south side of the summit about 2.20pm, with police launching an air and ground search for the teen.
The Police Airwing, Search and Rescue Squad, Dog Squad, local uniform members in 4WDs and police on bikes and the State Emergency Services all set out to find William.
Victoria Police said the situation was “very concerning” and they were battling “life threatening” conditions to find him before the temperatures plummeted that night.
The search extended overnight but crews were unable to locate the teen.
William, who had never gone camping or spent a night outside by himself, was faced with enduring a night of near freezing temperatures dressed in only trackpants and a hoodie.
TUESDAY, 9 JUNE
There were hopes that the clear, sunny skies on Tuesday would aid crews in the land and air search for William.
As the search continued, people in the surrounding area were urged to check their homes for the boy as police believed he may have walked into a house in search of food or put himself to bed.
“William doesn’t verbalise so if anyone finds him, the best way to communicate with him is to be patient and calm,” Acting Inspector Christine Lalor said.
As William is non-verbal he often taps his chest to communicate, with police telling the community to be careful in how they approach him so as not to scare him off.
“He doesn’t really like to be touched, he doesn’t like loud noise. So just take those things into account and approach in a calm manner.”
Search and Rescue Squad Senior Sergeant Greg Paul told reporters on Tuesday they were fighting against time, but remained hopeful.
“It’s quite life-threatening weather, but we have had people survive several nights in these weather conditions as well,” he said.
“Luke Shambrook, six years ago … we found him on day five, he was alive and he’s alive today.”
More than 200 volunteers joined about 150 police in the search for the boy.
Once again the search continued into the night with no sign of William, raising even more concerns about the 14-year-old having to spend another night alone in the wilderness without food or water.
Sen Sgt Paul said the area had very thick bush from bushfire regrowth which hampered searches.
But they were “giving it our best effort” to search the steep terrain.
“The only advantage is there is an opportunity to stay a little bit warm if you can snuggle up in the undergrowth,” he said.
WEDNESDAY, 10 JUNE
In a desperate bid encourage William out from the bushland, Thomas the Tank Engine theme music was blasted over speakers.
Thomas the Tank Engine is the teen’s favourite show and rescuers hoped that by playing the music William would come out if he was scared and hiding.
“We are throwing everything at our search again today,” Acting Insp Lalor told reporters at the scene today.
People with houses in the area were also urged to put out water and food like Vegemite, fetta cheese and peanut butter for William.
The smell of onion or bacon cooking on a barbecue will also get his attention, Acting Insp Lalor said.
About 500 volunteers and rescue crews were out searching for the teen today, with Acting Insp Lalor saying they were “optimistic” about finding him today.
William’s mum, Penny, made an emotional appearance on national TV, saying she desperately hoping he would be found today.
“As a mum, it’s tough when I’m trying to sleep and he isn’t,” she said.
“He will be quite scared of loud noises … I’m hoping he still has his clothes on. He may be barefoot, though. He doesn’t like shoes. He will, you know, probably be covering his ears a fair bit if there is loud noise.
“Having said that, I think he’s gonna be pretty hungry and scared, so, you know, food is gonna be a main driver for him at this point. And he will be seeking food. He loves his food, so he will be looking to — he’s not gonna shy away from approaching someone for food.”
Ms Callaghan, supported by her husband Nathan Ezard, said even though William was “quite resilient” they didn’t want him to spend another night in the cold.
“We are desperately hoping he will be found today,” she told the media this morning.
“He has an intellectual disability and, um, he’s very smart in his own way, you know? I’m feeling positive because he’s quite resilient. He is very skinny.
“He doesn’t have much padding on him, but he eats all the time, he’s always on the move. He’s very active, so he’s quite fit.”
Just hours after Ms Callaghan made the emotional plea, William was found by experienced bushman, Ben Gibbs at around 1pm.
Mr Gibbs gave the boy some food and warm clothes before alerting the authorities.
William was quickly reunited with his family, with heartwarming footage showing his mum and stepdad embracing him.
Ms Callaghan said Will’s first request after being reunited was to get McDonald’s.
“I am really overwhelmed here. He is well as could be under the circumstances, he is quite calm considering,” she said.
She said Will communicated that we was “confused and scared” and indicated his “body feels weird”
“I can’t imagine what he’s been feeling and going through. I am just so relieved
He was taken by ambulance to hospital for a check up, while volunteers celebrated the successful search.