NOGALES, AZ - JANUARY 21:  The U.S.-Mexico border fence stretches into the countryside on January 21, 2014 near Nogales, Arizona.  (Photograph by Charles Ommanney/Reportage by Getty Images)
CNN  — 

Deep in the Arizona wilderness, as daylight faded in the desert mountains, a boy stood on a narrow road, holding a broken mirror.

It was Thanksgiving Day 2007. Chris Buchleitner was 9 years old. The mirror had snapped off the side of his mother’s van a few minutes earlier, when she drove off the road and they went tumbling down a steep hill. Now his mother lay trapped in the crumpled van, down in the canyon. Chris had escaped from the van and climbed up to look for help.

They were a few miles from the Mexican border. Chris had recently seen a Border Patrol helicopter, and he hoped to use the mirror as a signaling device. But the helicopter was nowhere in sight. His mother’s cell phone was out of range. Chris was lonely, afraid, running out of ideas. And then, in the gathering dusk, he saw a stranger approaching.

The man had come from Mexico. He’d crossed the border illegally, planning to start a new life. He’d been separated from his companions as they dodged authorities and the criminals who prey on migrants in the desert. But he was still free, and if he caught a few more breaks he could make it to Tucson or Phoenix and find the kind of job he needed to support his family back home.

Now this man had a choice to make.

He could keep going, safe for now from the Border Patrol, and leave the boy on his own.

Or he could stay, help the boy, and risk getting caught by the same people he’d been evading for the last three days.

Manuel Cordova’s decision would have profound consequences for them both. Later, when the story got out, it would be invoked in the highly charged national debate about the costs and benefits of illegal immigration. That conversation would intensify in the years that followed.

But as night fell on Forest Service Road 39, political arguments did not matter. There was only a boy who needed protection, a woman who needed rescuing, and a man who appeared to be their only hope.

Reeling from tragedy, a mother and son take one last camping trip

To this day, Chris doesn’t know why it happened. Maybe the sun got in her eyes, or part of the road gave way. Whatever the reason, his mother lost control of the van. She screamed. The van lurched and tipped. Everything seemed to move in slow motion. And as the van rolled and crashed down the hill, Chris pressed himself against the back seat and held on for dear life.

Chris loved camping, but he’d always had a bad feeling about this trip. He wasn’t sure why. Chris and his mother and father had once traveled the American West with their pop-up camper, exploring those glorious open spaces, but a trip like that would never happen again.

Chris’s father had died that September. Now Chris and his mother, a biology teacher named Dawn Tomko, were persevering on their own. Chris told his mom he didn’t want to go camping. But Dawn, a former park ranger, couldn’t wait to get back out into nature.

Chris Buchleitner and his mother, Dawn Tomko, went on many camping trips together, like the one shown here.

At home in Rimrock, Arizona, she planned another trip for Thanksgiving week. They brought their dogs, Tanner and Jade. They were on the way back to their campsite from a mountain-biking excursion when the van careened off the road.

Down in the canyon, the van rested against a tree, the engine still running. From the back seat, Chris reached forward and turned off the ignition. His mother was gasping for breath, possibly unconscious, unable to get out of the driver’s seat. Her arm was badly cut, so Chris wrapped it in a blanket. Then he told her he was going to get help.

Chris gathered supplies: binoculars, his mother’s flip phone, the van’s disconnected mirror. The hill was steep and the ground was loose. He slipped, fell back, scraped his knees. But he kept climbing until he got back to the road. There he found a welcome surprise: his dog Tanner, unharmed. (Jade had apparently run off into the canyon after the crash, but Chris thinks Tanner may have jumped out an open window just before the van started rolling down the hill.)

Tanner was a big dog, perhaps 75 pounds, and he made Chris feel a little safer. They’d just started walking down the road when they saw the man. He wore black pants and a black sweatshirt.

At first, Chris worried that Tanner might attack, so he looped the strap of the binoculars through Tanner’s collar. But Tanner seemed to know this man was not a threat.

Chris’s parents had taught him not to talk to strangers, but these were extraordinary circumstances. Chris told the man he needed help. The man looked confused. Gradually, they both realized there was a language barrier. The man pulled out an ID card and pointed to his name. Manuel. He introduced himself as Manny.

Chris knew a few words in Spanish, and he tried to explain the situation. The van was green, so he said verde. It went down the hill fast, so he said rapido. They both made hand gestures. Whatever meaning was lost, some things were easy to understand. It was cold, getting colder, and Chris was in shorts and a T-shirt.

Manuel took off his sweatshirt and draped it around Chris’s shoulders.

After days of hiding from authorities, he does everything he can to draw their attention

The man in black wasn’t alone when he left Magdalena de Kino.

The picturesque Mexican town is a popular pilgrimage site that draws throngs of people every year for its feasts honoring Saint Francis Xavier and Father Kino, a Jesuit priest who founded many missions in the region. But on a November morning in 2007, Manuel Jesus Cordova Soberanes and about 30 others from Magdalena were making a trek of their own, leaving town in search of opportunities they couldn’t find at home.

The Jesuit missionary Eusebio Kino figures founded the Santa Maria Magdalena de Buquivaba Mission on the site inhabited by the Pima Indians, Magdalena, Sonora, Mexico.

Work was hard to come by. Even decent jobs, like one Manuel had working in a factory making surgical scrubs, paid around $100 a week.

Manuel was 26 years old. He’d been partying a lot and using drugs. But he was a father, too, and he knew he needed to support his family.

He had two daughters already, and a third child on the way. So he met up with the group that was leaving that morning in November and headed toward the border, about 60 miles north. He planned to travel to a major city in Arizona and find whatever work he could.

It wasn’t the first time Manuel had made the attempt. He’d been caught and sent back a few times before. This time, he left Magdalena determined that the journey would be different. This time, he was going to make it — and stay.

For days, he’d been doing all he could to keep authorities from finding him. The group from Magdalena scattered across the desert whenever they heard voices or shouting, or any time someone caught a glimpse in the distance of flashing lights. At one point, Manuel burrowed under vegetation and hid for what felt like hours.

Now, here he was, on his own, walking north. And here was something he never expected to see: a little boy standing on the narrow dirt road in front of him. Manuel thought of his own children. They were around the same age as Chris. He knew he’d want someone to do this for them.

After giving the boy his sweatshirt, Manuel went down the hill to check on the woman. From outside the battered van, he could hear her breathing heavily. But he couldn’t see her or figure out how to reach her. He came to a devastating realization: There was no way to pry open the driver’s-side door, and even trying could make a perilous situation worse. The vehicle had rolled over into a canyon — but not all the way to the bottom. It was teetering like a seesaw on the slope of the ravine. Manuel tried to stabilize the van with branches and stones. There was still much further it could fall.

Car crash scene
KVOA

Back on the roadside, he made a huge pile of wood and started a roaring fire, for warmth and a signal, in case someone out there might see it and bring help. He’d been hiding for days. But now his priorities had changed. Manuel was doing all he could to draw attention from the American authorities.

Chris kept thinking about his mother, alone down there in the canyon, but the hill was too treacherous for a 9-year-old to navigate in the dark. So he curled up by the fire, using Tanner the dog as a pillow, and eventually he fell asleep.

As the night went on, Manuel kept returning to the van to check on Chris’s mom. Although he couldn’t free her, he could still hear her breathing.

And then, around midnight, on another trip to the van, he listened for her breathing and heard only silence.

Help finally arrives. So does the Border Patrol

Back up on the road, the fire blazed, and the boy slept, and the long night passed. In the morning, two quail hunters came by in a pickup truck. Manuel flagged them down. They had a satellite phone. One called 911, and the call went through.

With help on the way, Manuel could have headed on for Tucson or Phoenix. But something in him had changed in the night. His destination had shifted. He decided that this was where he needed to be, waiting until an ambulance arrived to take Chris somewhere safe.

The ambulance came. So did firefighters, who discovered Jade the dog nearby in the canyon as they were working to pull the van up the steep incline.

Local and federal officials arrived at the scene, too. Manuel says they put him in handcuffs, but then apologized and removed them after speaking with Chris.

“Forgive us, but it’s my job,” Manuel says a Border Patrol agent told him. “You are illegal here.”

“No problem,” Manuel recalls saying. In a way, he was relieved to be heading home. He had just two requests: he needed a cigarette. And he asked if he could stay at the scene a little longer. He wanted to watch as rescue crews recovered the van. He was still holding out hope that somehow, Chris’s mother had survived.

When they finally extracted her body from the wreckage, no one had to tell Manuel what had happened. He could see firefighters signaling to each other: She was gone.

As Manuel headed back to the Border Patrol truck, he thought of his grandmother, who’d recently died, and his father, who’d recently had a stroke, and Chris’s mother, who he could not save. Tears began to fall.