TWIN FALLS, Idaho — Having spent seven weeks stranded in a remote area near the Nevada-Idaho border, a weak and starving Rita Chretien read the bible, wrote a journal and prepared for the worst, while her son in Canada prayed for a Mother’s Day miracle.
The 56-year-old woman and her husband Albert vanished shortly after leaving their Penticton, B.C., home on March 19.
Rita Chretien was found alive last Friday when a pair of hunters on ATVs stumbled across the couple’s mud-stuck van near the Humboldt National Forest, in northeastern Nevada. Her husband is still missing.
“It’s the biggest miracle we could ever ask for, and there’s still one more to come in, so we’re still praying for another one,” their son, Raymond Chretien, told reporters at an Idaho hospital.
Raymond Chretien, his wife and a group of other family members gathered at the recovering woman’s bedside on Sunday “rejoicing” they were able to spend Mother’s Day together.
Doctors treating her said the woman was within days of dying from lack of nutrition.
The day before she was found, Rita Chretien had a feeling the following 24-hours would bring an end to her suffering.
“Whether it was to take her home to be with her Saviour or to be rescued — and it was to be rescued,” her son said.
But the family’s elation was tempered by the lack of clues about what had happened to Albert Chretien, who had set out to get help weeks earlier and vanished.
The couple had a paper map and GPS device with them when they decided to take a “scenic route” as they journeyed through the remote mountains of northeastern Nevada towards Las Vegas for a business trip. That’s when they “took a few wrong turns,” their son said, and their van got hopelessly stuck on a remote forest road.
After a few days Albert Chretien set out for help, leaving his wife in the shelter of the van with hard candy and beef jerky. She survived for weeks by rationing the snacks and drinking melted snow.
“A lot of us were surprised she had the strength to get through this, she’s not an outdoorsy type,” Raymond Chretien said, noting his mother discovered she had survival skills. “More than we knew. More than she knew.”
By Sunday morning Rita Chretien, who lost considerable weight from her ordeal, had managed to keep down a small liquid-like meal.
“We are very optimistic she will have a good recovery,” said Dr. James Westberry, at St. Lukes Magic Valley Medical Center in Twin Falls, Idaho.
“We are familiar with starvation in our line of work, but this is a once in a lifetime for us. She obviously had the mindset of survival and that must have been something to help her go as long as she did.”
Westberry said the medical team caring for the B.C. woman had worked to restore her electrolytes and was feeding her a liquid diet before helping her adjust to food. He said she wasn’t expected to suffer any long-term liver or kidney issues, despite losing 30 lbs. and dehydration.
“When I saw her, she was actually in good spirits,” Westberry said.
“She was calm and she was able to communicate quite well.”
The search continued Sunday for her husband. The area the couple were in is a tough one to search — terrain is rough and there is no cellphone service.
Authorities have repeatedly said they are actively searching for the 59-year-old man and aren’t ready to turn the rescue mission into a recovery one.
More than a dozen deputies from Nevada and Idaho’s Owyhee County continued to scour canyons and mountainsides along the northern border of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest Sunday.
Bad weather prevented them from using aircraft Saturday and would probably prevent it again Sunday, said Detective James Carpenter. Because rain and high winds are forecast for next couple of days, it could be midweek before aircraft may help with the effort.
Carpenter said the search could take time because of the various directions that Albert Chretien may have taken.
“That area is pretty remote,” said Tom Montoya, U.S. Forest Service district ranger for the area. He described it as “miles from anything. It’s kind of canyon lands, a lot of gorges out there” that would make it easy to get lost.
Still, Rita Chretien’s rescue has provided fresh hope for the family who’d been fearing the worst since the couple were last seen at a store in Baker City, Ore. The RCMP, Baker City police and other agencies mounted a search in April but failed to turn up any sign.
“Never give up, never lose your faith and miracles happen,” Raymond Chretien said before returning to celebrate with his mother. “Never underestimate that.”