A woman who survived for over two weeks in a Hawaiian forest before being rescued recounted the harrowing experience for reporters on Tuesday, on the heels of her discharge from the hospital.
“I just had such hope in my heart,” Amanda Eller, 35, said at a news conference at Maui Memorial Hospital, where she was surrounded by family.
Eller also shared details of her frightening misadventure on Saturday, when she posted a video to Facebook from her hospital bed. In both sets of remarks, she said she was grateful for all those who kept looking for her and never gave up the search.
“The last 17 days of my life have been the toughest days of my life,” a tearful Eller said in the hospital-bed video she posted to Facebook .
Eller was found injured in the Makawao Forest Reserve on Friday after going missing on May 8, sparking a search of the area that drew hundreds of volunteers.
On Saturday and again when she spoke with reporters on Tuesday, Eller praised the Maui community and those who continued to pray for her safe return to civilization.
Eller told reporters on Tuesday that she saw at least 20 helicopters above before she was finally found.
“I’m looking at the sky just saying. ‘Please pick me up,’” Eller said. But it also dawned on her that this was a “needle-in-a-haystack scenario.”
“As the sun starts to go down you think, ‘Another day alone,’” she said.
Other thoughts also raced through her mind while she was lost in the woods: “’How will I stay warm? How will I stay alive?’”
She said she survived by drinking from waterfalls and streams and eating plants and berries.
Reflecting on her experience, she now calls what happened to her “spiritual,” and an “opportunity to be stripped away of all the comforts of this modern world.”
Eller was last seen on surveillance video on May 8 as she left the Haiku Post Office; her car was discovered at Makawao Forest Reserve later that day. Eller told reporters she was planning on taking a short run in the forest, as she had done before, leaving her cellphone behind. She took a short break to meditate and when she tried to return to her car she became disoriented.
“You turn your head one way and it looks exactly like the other way,” Eller said. All the while, she was plunging deeper into the reserve.
Eventually, she realized that she was facing a stark choice: “You can sit on the rock and you will die. … Or you can start walking down that waterfall and choose life.”
“I had to choose life,” she said, explaining that her parents and loved ones were very much on her mind.
Eller said she would sleep in tall grass, on rocks and in the mud.
“It was uncomfortable but it was good to be alive,” said Eller, adding that she knew she had to try to sleep so she could heal from her injuries.
On her third day of being lost, she fell 20 feet off a cliff, fracturing her leg and tearing the meniscus in her knee. She also suffered burns on her legs from sun exposure. Eller, who spoke to reporters while sitting in a wheelchair, said she will have to use crutches for the next four weeks.
The night she fell, she recalled, she was “screaming in pain.” She said the next night she was caught in what seemed like a flash flood. She said she was sitting on hard rocks in a foot of water, curled up into a ball and the only thing that got her through was meditation. She described that moment as “complete and utter breaking down as a human being.”
She estimates she hiked for some 30 miles, mostly without shoes, putting clothing on rocks along the way as evidence of life for anyone out looking.
“I have wounds on my ankles, that’s the worst of it,” said Eller.
But doctors expect Eller will make a full recovery. “The staff and physicians at Maui Memorial Medical Center involved in her treatment and care are rejoicing at the miraculous news of her great outcome,” Maui Health System CEO Michael Rembis said.
Eller’s family said she came home Monday night after several days of wound care and recuperation.
Javier Cantellops, a member of the search team, recorded video of Eller being lifted to safety by a helicopter after his team spotted her from the air in a deep ravine near the Kailua reservoir.
Cantellops called the moment the search team found her “surreal.” Eller used a different term: “Miracle.”
Eller’s father, who grew visibly emotional at Tuesday’s news conference, expressed joy that his family has been reunited, saying, “This is really a blessing.”
Asked what she would do differently, Eller said, “I should have had a cell phone with me.”
She also advised those intent on communing with nature to take extra precautions and “overprepare” for hikes or runs. “It can get scary quick,” she warned.
Eller, who works as a physical therapist and yoga instructor, said she hopes her story can ultimately inspire others. “I want people to be so happy to be on Planet Earth,” she said.