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Rare survival tale: Autistic man survives 3 weeks in Utah desert

July 13, 2012|By John M. Glionna
  • William Martin LaFever, 28, who is alutistic, lived on a few frogs, roots and water as he wandered for at least three weeks in the remote Escalante Desert of southern Utah until being rescued on Thursday.
William Martin LaFever, 28, who is alutistic, lived on a few frogs, roots… (Al Hartmann / Salt Lake Tribune…)

William Martin LaFever has lots of reasons for still being alive after wandering for weeks in the remote Escalante Desert of southern Utah. One is the sheer luck that searchers put a rescue helicopter in just the right place; that was what ended one of the most amazing -- and perhaps luckiest -- survival stories in years.

But Garfield County, Utah, sheriff’s authorities point to one other providential fact: LaFever is autistic, which might have led him to stay close to the life-giving Escalante River.

“They say that those who are autistic are drawn to water,” sheriff's spokeswoman Becki Bronson told the Los Angeles Times. "He stayed with a water source, that was key. A person can go three weeks without food but only a few days without water. He stayed cool in the river, and he hydrated himself.”

Following his rescue Thursday, the 28-year-old Colorado Springs, Colo., man told officials he scavenged bits of food, captured frogs and drank river water while attempting to walk the 90 miles from Boulder, Utah, to Page, Ariz. He made 40 of those miles over three weeks before being rescued, emaciated but alive.

Bronson told The Times that the desert landscape from which LaFever was plucked is as inhospitable as Mars.

“It’s a place where they hold outdoor survival classes, a mixture of jagged lava rock and slippery sandstone, heavy sagebrush and juniper trees, desert terrain marked by sheer cliffs,” she said. “This is some of the most unforgiving terrain you will find anywhere on Earth. Where he was – there just isn’t anyone out there. There are no people. There are no towns."

Bronson said LaFever was trying to get to Page to collect a money wire from his father, John LaFever of Colorado Springs. The younger LeFever had called his family in early June to report that he had run out of money after someone stole his hiking gear while he was on a desert jaunt in the Boulder area with his dog. John LaFever told his son to catch a ride to Page to collect the money.

But William instead decided to hike down the Escalante River and then hitch a boat ride along Lake Powell to Page, officials say. He soon ran out of food, and his dog ran off. He began jettisoning gear until all he had was the clothing and shoes he was wearing when he was found. LaFever’s sister reported him missing on Monday, the sheriff's department said.

“We get a call on Monday. By then, its been a month since William had contacted his dad. At that point, who knows where he went, what direction he took?” Bronson said. “For our deputies to put a few puzzle pieces together and take a wild stab where he went, and to find him, is just providential.”

Consider these odds: Deputy Ray Gardner, who participated in LaFever’s rescue, had recently completed training in search and rescue operations for people with autism. That training taught him that those with autism are naturally drawn to water, so the helicopter search focused on the Escalante River.

The rescue team planned to fly the river and turn around at Lake Powell. “That would have been, like, ‘Well, we tried,’” Bronson said. “There was absolutely no expectation of finding him. It was a shot in the dark."

On Thursday afternoon, just a few miles before reaching Lake Powell and their turnaround point, the searchers spotted a figure sitting in the middle of the river, waving weakly.

Gardner thought, "This couldn’t be him. It had to be somebody else,” Bronson related.

The chopper set down 100 feet from the river, leading to the “Doctor Livingston I presume” moment. “This guy had hours left – he would absolutely not have survived one more day. He was so weak he couldn’t move,” Bronson said.

She said LaFever told his rescuers that he rolled to the river bank at night for sleep and then rolled back in the water the following morning. “He was able to lift his arms and try to wave at them, and that’s it,” Bronson said. “He couldn’t move, couldn’t stand on his own, when they found him he couldn’t even crawl.”

Gardner told his superiors that, “in all my career I have never seen someone so emaciated. I could not believe that he was alive, and feel certain that in another 24 hours he would not have been alive," according to a sheriff's department release.

The last-stab rescue also came with a quirky go-figure ending.

“When they found him, LaFever would not stop talking,” Bronson said. “They said it was hard to get him to eat something – they finally got him to eat a granola bar and take a drink. He was alone, he was starved for human contact. I guess the human being has all kinds of needs.”

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john.glionna@latimes.com

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