Patricia Calcott hugs Ron Robb after their son, Joshua, was found in the… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)
First came the footprint. Then a series of them. Then a boy's rain-soaked striped shirt laid out on a log. By Tuesday afternoon, a four-member search team, one of dozens scoping the thickly forested San Bernardino National Forest, had the boy — alive, though tired and hungry.
"Thank you … you saved me," the boy said in a low voice.
Joshua Robb, an autistic 8-year-old who had been missing for more than 24 hours after running away from his elementary school in Twin Peaks, was found in "pretty good shape" in a rugged ravine 1 1/2 miles from the school, San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department officials said. The boy, who "was basically boxed in," said Capt. Tony Nicassio, was airlifted to Loma Linda University Medical Center, where he was listed in good condition.
"He's drinking water ... eating ... it's elation ... relief," Lt. Rick Ells said. "He seems in pretty good shape."
More than 60 sheriff's deputies and California Highway Patrol officers had spread out across the forest near Lake Arrowhead on Tuesday morning in a frantic search for Joshua, who had squeezed through a fence at Grandview Elementary in Twin Peaks around 11 a.m. Monday. At least one school staff member had given chase but couldn't catch the boy.
The search team members said that after finding the shirt, they heard Joshua's voice, mumbling, in the distance. Then they saw him.
"He was just standing there; I think he was coming to us," said Justin Wheaton, a volunteer with the San Bernardino Mountain Search and Rescue Team.
Joshua was shirtless, had some scratches and was extremely tired, yet had somehow managed to survive the hard rains, lightning and cold weather that pushed through Lake Arrowhead overnight.
"He didn't say a whole lot at first, just hugs," Wheaton said.
And then came the thank you in a low voice.
Joshua's parents, Ron Robb and Patricia Calcott, hugged and cried when their son was found, calling it "a true miracle," although they acknowledged they were stunned by Joshua's words because he is usually shy and rarely speaks, Robb said.
"We are in total shock because he doesn't talk a lot," he said of the boy thanking his rescuers. "We didn't think this was something he would know how to say or comprehend."
In fact, searchers played Ozzy Osbourne's "No More Tears" and Alan Jackson's "Good Time" — two of Joshua's favorite songs — to try to coax him toward them, KNBC-TV Channel 4 reported. They also shouted the boy's nickname.
Robb, who spent a long time with the searchers, said he cried out, "Bubby, Bubby, come out and find Daddy, we are looking for you, Bub.' " He went back to the command post, and "not long after that, they found him," he said. "The boy is not leaving our sight after this."
Robb said Joshua had been removed from their care last month by the San Bernardino County Department of Children and Family Services. The family had lost their home to foreclosure and, according to Robb, a real estate agent spotted Joshua tied to a post at the home with nylon rope and reported it to authorities.
"Look, he's a flight risk, always," Robb said of his son, adding that the autism causes Joshua to run from his caregivers and that he had been tied to the post "for his own safety" as the family was packing up.
"We tried to tell them, 'He has autism, don't do this,' " Robb said.
Since Joshua was removed and placed with a teacher from the school, Robb and Calcott have seen him only once, they said.
Robb said he and Calcott had been living at campgrounds in the area or with friends since moving out of the house. And both were angry that their son was left in a position where he could run away.
"He was looking for us," Robb said of why Joshua ran away from the school.
San Bernardino County spokesman David Wert declined to comment on the parents' allegations, citing privacy issues. Speaking generally, he said that a child is removed from a home only after a decision is reached by the county's Department of Child Support Services, the local law enforcement agency and the Superior Court. "All three have to concur that the child is in imminent danger," Wert told The Times. "It's not an arbitrary decision by one person."
On Tuesday morning, counselors had been called in to Grandview to help worried staff members and students.
"If you were up here driving around last night, you would have seen a lot of families out with flashlights looking in the woods for him," said John Elderkin, director of special services for the Rim of the World Unified School District. "We're a very close-knit community, and when something like this happens, everyone in the community feels for it and responds to it."
"It's been a very tough time for teachers and staff at the school and for the community in general."
Los Angeles Times staff writers Tony Barboza and Robert J. Lopez contributed to this report.