Four Colombian children recused alive after 40 days lost in Amazon jungle

Four children, age 11 months to 13 years, lived alone in the jungle after all adults died

Today's expression: No trace
Explore more: Lesson #584
June 26, 2023:

The Colombian military announced the dramatic rescue of four children who survived alone in the Amazon jungle after their plane crashed on May 1. All adults onboard died in the crash. When rescue teams arrived, there was no sign of the children, leading to a dramatic manhunt to find the surviving kids. They were found alive on June 8, 40 days after the crash.

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A plane crash in the Amazon jungle. Four kids go missing. A massive manhunt by the Colombian military and indigenous volunteers. Here’s how this incredible story unfolded

Lesson summary

Hi everyone, I’m Jeff and this is Plain English, where we help you upgrade your English with current events and trending topics. This is lesson number 584, so you can find the full lesson resources at PlainEnglish.com/584.

Today’s story is one I’ve wanted to create for weeks—and now I finally can. On May 1, a plane crashed deep in the Amazon jungle. It was carrying three adults and four children. When rescuers got to the scene of the crash, they found the bodies of three adults—they had been killed in the crash. But the kids were missing—and that meant, they were potentially alive, lost and alone deep in the Amazon jungle. It’s an incredible story—I’ll tell you what happened in just a second.

In the second half of the lesson, we’ll talk about the English expression “no trace.” And we have a quote of the week. Let’s get going.

Children found alive after 40 days lost in Amazon jungle

The Amazon region of South America is extremely remote. It covers large areas of Brazil, Peru, and Colombia. There are few roads connecting towns and regions in this area—to get from place to place, you can use the river or you can fly.

The area is served by small airports and small planes. In fact , many small private planes don’t even use airports; they fly from one remote landing strip to another. Early in the morning on May 1, a family took off from a small airport in southern Colombia, along a river that feeds the Amazon.

The plane was a single-engine Cessna prop plane. This is a very small plane with just a single propeller on the front.

At about 7:30 a.m., the pilot radioed to air traffic control that the plane was experiencing engine trouble. The plane then disappeared from radar, deep in the Amazon jungle. It was carrying four children and three adults, including the children’s mother.

It took two weeks for rescuers to even locate the plane after the crash. When they found it, on May 16, they saw that the plane hit the ground at a steep angle. The front part was more damaged than the rear. They found the bodies of the three adults on board. But there was no trace of the children.

This set off a massive manhunt in the most impossible conditions. The region is characterized by thick, dense forest. There are few clearings; it goes without saying there are no main highways and that transportation is very difficult. Wildlife is dangerous: jaguars and poisonous snakes prowl the jungle.

In the initial days of the search, rescue teams found clues that the children had survived the crash. They found a bottle, a partially-eaten piece of fruit, diapers, a pair of scissors, and small footprints. But they suspected the children were on the move. That made the search all the more difficult. If the children were moving, then it was possible that they would move into an area that had already been searched.

Rescue teams came up with an idea. They got the children’s grandmother to record a message to them, imploring them to stop moving, and assuring them that help was on the way. Then, they blasted the message from helicopters circling the area. They used powerful speakers that could project sound for about a mile.

On May 17, soon after the search for the kids began, Colombian President Gustavo Petro tweeted news that brought relief to a country captivated by the rescue mission: the children had been found alive, he said. But he spoke too soon. The information was false, and he deleted the tweet.

The search continued in the air and on land. On land, soldiers worked alongside local indigenous volunteers and specially-trained dogs to find the missing children. From the air, planes and helicopters dropped boxes of food and set off flares to illuminate the area for teams on the ground at night.

The search initially focused on a five-kilometer radius from the crash site, but eventually covered an area of over three hundred square kilometers.

The children, if they were alive, were facing almost impossible odds. The oldest was thirteen years old. The youngest, eleven months old when the plane went down: he would have spent his first birthday with his siblings in the dark forest. The others were nine and four years old. How could they possibly survive—what would they eat and drink? How would they protect themselves from predators, from snakes, insects, jaguars, and more?

As the search went into its second month, some began to lose heart. The size of the rescue team diminished. But two factors kept hope alive. The first was that the children were from the jungle: this was their territory. They were members of the Huitoto indigenous community. The oldest, at thirteen, would have had some knowledge of how to survive in the jungle.

And the second reason for hope was that no bodies had been found. Rescuers thought that if the children had died, they would have found their bodies. But the children, he thought, were on the move, making it that much harder to find them.

Then, on Friday June 9, came the news that everyone had been hoping for: the children were found alive. One of the rescue dogs was the first to find them. They were malnourished, covered in insect bites, and they suffered from dehydration. But other than that, they were healthy. The military tweeted a photo of Colombian soldiers and the four children. The kids were wrapped in thermal blankets and, in one photo, a soldier held a bottle to the youngest child’s lips.

The story doesn’t end there. They had to get the kids out. This was deep in the jungle—they couldn’t put them in a truck or an ambulance. There wasn’t a landing strip or even a clearing large enough to land a helicopter. So a helicopter went to the scene and hovered overhead. The kids were secured to lines and lifted into the helicopter. They were flown to a nearby town and, a day later, to a military hospital in Bogotá.

Spotlight on air safety

I was captivated by this story, and I checked my phone every day after I heard about the search, hoping that they’d be found alive. This is just an incredible story of survival, first of all, but second of a search and rescue mission that was successful against all odds.

It reminds me of Lesson 66, when we talked about a boys soccer team that was trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand, and rescuers were able to get them out after eighteen days.

This incident might also shine an uncomfortable spotlight on air safety in the Amazon. The plane that crashed had also been in a previous crash in 2021. People who fly in the area say that plane crashes are disturbingly common in this remote region.

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Expression: No trace