Justin Ross pulled into the Koomer Ridge Campground in eastern Kentucky a few hours removed from giving an afternoon exam in Bloomington. As he parked, he heard his son and nephew had slipped away and gone missing in Red River Gorge.
He followed his instinct. He ran.
He sprinted past the campground and called their names. A former collegiate cross-country star, he ran through the trees and along the ravine.
He came to a three-way split in the road. Turning right first, the SPEA professor ran a half-mile down each one. Then he saw the cliffs and he gasped.
Adrian Ross, 7, and Michael Esposito, 5, were collecting firewood when they wandered off the Koomer Ridge Campground in eastern Kentucky on Thursday. By the time Justin’s father-in-law realized they were missing, it was 6:30 p.m. and dusk was coming.
Justin, an associate professor who specializes in tax policy, had just arrived from Bloomington, where he had given an exam that afternoon. His wife Lisa was in Cincinnati, tending to a sick 1-year-old. She called at 7:19 p.m., and he caught his breath long enough to get the words out.
“Adrian and Michael are missing,” he told her. “I can’t find them and it’s getting dark. I need to let you go so I can keep running.”
When the sun fell behind the cliffs, Justin ran back to camp. He called the search and rescue team, which set to work on the largest rescue mission in Red River Gorge history: a dozen search units, tracking dogs, infrared helicopters and hundreds of volunteers.
Lisa went to Facebook. “Please say some prayers,” she wrote. “My seven year old Adrian and my five year old nephew Michael are lost in the woods in Kentucky.”
Night fell before the rescue teams could find the boys. Adrian and Michael slept under a tree, gnawing on twigs when they got hungry. “We basically just laid down the whole time,” Adrian said.
Back in Bloomington, fellow SPEA professor Ashlyn Nelson couldn’t sleep. A close friend of the Ross family, Nelson read Lisa’s Facebook post and felt the fear rise from her stomach. “I got super worried because Lisa’s a pretty calm person,” Nelson said. “I basically didn’t sleep that night.”
She texted Justin to offer help, then fought through a night of sleep and planned to drive to Kentucky and help search in the morning. When she awoke at 6:30 a.m., she sent an email to SPEA faculty and staff, laying out her plan.
Within minutes, a phone tree had sprouted. Text messages, emails and phone calls came in by the dozen.
“Everyone was very willing to drop everything they had that day and head down there,” said Brad Lufkin, a SPEA master’s student and Nelson’s teaching assistant. “There wasn’t much convincing at all.”
They packed 11 cars full of professors and graduate students and started the four-hour drive south, picking up camping supplies along the way.
As day broke in Kentucky, the search intensified. Thunderstorms had ripped through the northern part of the state, and were headed toward the Gorge. Once rain fell, it would wipe away the boys’ scent and turn the ravine into a rush of rocks and mud.
Lisa drove down from Cincinnati and made Justin change into jeans. The search had left his legs covered in scratches. Then the two of them set on their own search, heading along a rough stretch of trail.
The search and rescue team worked through the forest. The search reached 12 hours, then 15, then 18. As Justin and Lisa worked to suppress their emotions underneath the darkening clouds, a United States Forest Service officer approached them.
“We lost a guy in here a couple weeks ago,” the ranger said. “He was missing for 11 days, but we found him. We don’t quit. We don’t stop looking.”
The first few carloads of SPEA volunteers arrived, their four-hour drive extended by the whipping rain in Louisville. Some cars didn’t make it, the drivers unable to see through the storm.
Clouds blanketed the sky as the search reached 20 hours. Kelly Moore, a Forest Service officer, was watching the sky and running out of time.
Moore wandered through the trees, calling the boys’ names as he went. He trudged back to the cliffs, the last place he wanted to find them. He came to a fork in the path and called out again. This time, he heard Michael call back.
“We’re here! We’re here!” Michael squeaked.
“Do you know where you are?” Moore yelled back.
“We’re under a mountain-laurel!”
Two miles from camp, Moore found Adrian and Michael hiding underneath a bush. He navigated to them and led them to his truck, just up the road. The boys munched on Oreos as they rode back to camp. They pulled into camp just before the rains fell.
As he drove, Moore called Justin and Lisa, who had walked four miles into the woods. The cell phone reception was spotty, but they didn’t care.
“It was really hard to hear them, I couldn’t make out a lot of it,” Justin said. “So much fear, relief, gratitude.”
Justin called the legion of SPEA volunteers still on the road and told them the news. The search was over. Adrian and Michael were safe.
When they made it to camp, Justin climbed into the ambulance where paramedics had checked the boys. A few scratches, but no injuries.
“I couldn’t believe the outpouring of support from the IU community, and especially SPEA,” Justin said. “So many people treated it as if their own kids were missing.”
Justin and Lisa are taking the boys camping in two weeks in Hoosier National Forest. Justin is confident this time will be easier — the search and rescue team called the boys “survivor men.”
“It’s amazing to me,” Justin said. “He can’t find his shoes, he needs help with everything. But he did this?”