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Utah couple rescued after 12 days missing in deep snow

  • Story Highlights
  • On trip to photograph wild horses, couple had last been seen January 26
  • Couple, dog left truck Monday when food ran out, started desperate hike
  • Snow shoes made from seat cushions used to hike in waist-deep snow
  • Searcher with undiagnosed heart condition died during rescue effort
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(CNN) -- A husband and wife who were stranded in heavy snow for 12 days were rescued in Utah when a snowplow driver happened upon them on a little-traveled canyon road, authorities said.

Thomas Garner, 40 and his 38-year-old wife, Tamitha, cut the seat cushions in their pickup to fashion snow shoes and lit carburetor cleaner to start fires in sub-zero temperatures, Sheriff Mark Gower of Iron County, Utah, told CNN.

"It's just a remarkable story how they did this," Gower said. "They were just very resourceful, very adapted to surviving terrible blizzards and cold weather."

A snowplow driver, clearing a remote wilderness road, found the couple on Wednesday about 60 miles west of Cedar City, near the Utah-Nevada state line.

The pair had abandoned the shelter of their snowbound pickup truck and had been hiking for three days. Video Watch the couple describe how their prayers were answered »

"It was absolutely wonderful to see that great big yellow monster coming down the road," Tamitha Garner told reporters at Cedar City's Valley View Medical Center, where the couple was recovering.

The couple from Kearns, in northern Utah, had taken a road trip to photograph wild horses. Their pickup got stuck in the snow on January 26.

They spent the first nine days in the truck, eating groceries they had with them and turning the engine on long enough to stay warm, Gower said. They wrote their wills and recorded messages to their 19-year-old daughter, Krystal, in case they didn't make it back.

When they were down to one granola bar, the pair abandoned the truck and started hiking in sometimes waist-deep snow.

They ripped the cushions out of their Dodge Dakota and used them as snow shoes -- something Thomas Garner, an Eagle Scout, said he saw on a television show about surviving in the wilderness.

They survived frigid night temperatures huddled around fires that they lit with matches and a can of carburetor cleaner, Gower said. They sprayed deodorant on the fires to keep them going.

When dawn broke, the couple would begin walking again with their chocolate-colored mutt, Medusa.

They covered about 15 miles in three days, the sheriff estimated.

On Wednesday, the couple spotted a snowplow driver who was clearing a road that runs through Modena Canyon.

"I'm running, I'm screaming, I'm jumping up and down. I'm like 'Am I seeing things?'" Tamitha Garner said.

The couple, dressed in jeans and coats, were in "remarkably good shape," Gower said.

They were slightly dehydrated, frostbitten and suffered from light hypothermia, he said. Doctors expected to release both of them Thursday morning.

"My family is what kept me going," Garner told reporters. "My husband, my daughter, my mom, my in-laws. Every thought was with my family. I had to get back to them."

Garner's father-in-law, Gerald, told reporters the family had been praying for divine intervention for days.

"There's no word to describe it," he said. "I knelt down and thanked my father in heaven for the miracle he sent us."

While elated that the couple had been found, Gower said the rescue carried with it a tinge of sadness.

A 37-year-old man who was part of the many volunteer crews searching for the pair "really exerted himself" after his snowmobile got stuck. The man, who had an undiagnosed pre-existing heart condition, died the next day.

"We paid a price on this, too," the sheriff said.

The recuperating couple was in good spirits as they talked to reporters Wednesday night. They snapped some beautiful photos of the wild mustangs, so "it wasn't a total bust," Garner said.

They joked that their daughter, who was on her way to meet them at the hospital, was pulled over and got a speeding ticket.

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"I'm paying it," Garner said.

And, she said, they were raring to make it to their next destination: "Home." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Saeed Ahmed contributed to this report.

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