The search for Amanda Eller had been underway for nearly two weeks, when her eventual rescuers had a hunch.
They believed she was still alive and had been moving faster and farther than the search teams looking for her in a thick Hawaiian forest.
“We were just sort of swinging for the fence one last time and checking everything out,” Chris Berquist, one of the three men who found Eller told CNN Monday.
As the sun was setting on Friday – 17 days after Eller had walked into the woods for a short hike – Berquist, Javier Cantellops and Troy Helmer flew in a helicopter over waterfalls and swimming holes, keeping their eyes down onto the treacherous terrain, Cantellops said.
“We are coming around the bend,” Berquist said. “And we saw her.”
They were so excited, he said, the pilot “had to tell us to calm down (because) the helicopter was shaking.”
By the time the rescuers reached her, Eller had severe sunburns, had lost her shoes, could barely walk and had dropped nearly 15 pounds. She had survived on fruit, river water and the power of will, even though several helicopters had already passed her by.
“What a blessing on how organically this rescue came together,” Berquist said. “The right people stuck together like Velcro. Nobody ever quit.”
Two of the rescuers had military backgrounds
Two of the three rescuers credited military and survival training with helping them find Eller.
Cantellops, 37, did two tours of duty in Afghanistan and one in Iraq.
“It happens to be that the topography of the forest where we found her is just like where we trained in Georgia,” he told CNN. “The slopes, the terrain, the plant life, very similar. It’s like a switch got flipped on in my head and I said ‘I am going to lean on this to find her.’”
He said he’s also a diving and spearfishing instructor in Maui, and has “really good eyesight when I’m hunting fish.”
“I leaned on it in the search.”
Cantellops said he has known Eller for three years and believed it was his turn to help her after the physical therapist assisted him after he broke his foot.
“She has been my home,” he said. “That is why when this happened I got super emotional because she’s been my house and I said ‘I have to find her.’”
Berquist didn’t know Eller before he rescued her. During the search, the 33-year-old said he relied on his history of survival training and exposure to the military, while his dad was in the US Navy.
“What I learned growing up in the military community is the language of efficiency,” he said.
“I feel like every small problem that came up during the search was a small problem I faced before – like reading maps or making sure everybody had everything, equipment that they needed before they went out searching.”
Helmer who was the most familiar with the land, told CNN affiliate KHON that Eller was out looking for food when she heard the helicopter.
“She was about to jump down a 70-foot waterfall and if she would have, she would’ve jumped into a box canyon, and she wasn’t going to come out,” Helmer told the affiliate.
The men said they are elated the story ended happily, instead.
Now, the rescuers are turning their attention to finding others who have gone missing and continuing their search and rescue efforts across the island.