On April 29, 2001, 6-year-old Haley Zega got lost while hiking in Arkansas. She was found safe 52 hours later on May 1, 2001.
NEWTON COUNTY, ARKANSAS, Ark. – Today, Haley Zega lives the relatively daily life of a 27-year-old. The Fayetteville native still calls Northwest Arkansas home as she pursues an acting career, works at TheatreSquared, and enjoys walking the historic trails of Arkansas.
Those close to Zega, her family and even those who lived in the area in 2001 know that the young woman is more than meets the eye.
“Let’s start at the very beginning, I guess. A perfect place to start,” Zega said in a 2020 video from his YouTube page.
On April 29, 2001, Zega and her grandparents went hiking in the Upper Buffalo Wilderness of Newton County, Arkansas. Family and some friends ventured out to Hawksbill Crag. The weather at the end of April was mild. Sunny skies and temperatures near 80 degrees – great for hiking the scenic trail.
As the group reached Whitaker Point, Haley could hear a waterfall falling below the cliff. Eager to see the falls, Haley begged her grandparents to bring her closer. However, a quick glance and fatigue from the hike led her grandparents to reject the request.
Zega remembers sitting where she was standing and telling the group that she would stay put until they took her to see the falls. The bluff caller, his grandparents and the group refused and turned to leave, knowing that Haley would quickly drop the objection and follow them down the trail.
They were right, but they soon found themselves in the middle of a 52-hour nightmare.
As Haley took off after the group, she spotted a game trail just off the path. She followed him, thinking he was circling around a clump of trees and would drop her on the path. Zega followed the game trail but never found its way back to the main trail and got lost.
“It was like a curtain down. I couldn’t see or hear anyone. I was instantly lost, then I stayed lost,” Zega recalled.
Haley continued to make her way through the woods, looking for her family, the trail, and any signs that she was on the right track, but none came. Some have described what happened as divine intervention, a guardian angel, a spirit guide or even an alien? For Haley, it was Alicia – who she describes as her only imaginary friend who showed up when Haley needed her most.
“She was with me the whole time, and she was a comforting, positive presence,” Zega said. “She was right there the whole time and kept me focused on my goal.”
The goal was to return safe and sound. Zega recalled having a determined attitude that would see her through it: “I got myself into this mess, so there’s no reason I couldn’t get out of it.”
Haley’s preliminary search had begun.
Back in Fayetteville, Haley’s mother, Kelly Syer, attended a film festival on a rare day off that would soon turn anything but relaxing.
“From the back of the room, the announcer came up to the microphone and asked me to come to the back of the room, and it scared me to death,” Syer said. “Two friends who had come at the request of my parents and people who were with them told me to look for me because Haley was missing.”
Before setting off for the nearly two-hour drive to the trailhead, Syer rushed home. She grabbed some clothes and Haley’s pillowcase – all of which she thought would help the rescue team’s K-9s pick up her daughter’s scent.
On the ride, Syer says the fear started to set in. “I wasn’t exactly panicked, but really, really scared. I knew the trail was along a bluff that dropped a few hundred feet down to the Buffalo River, and knowing that, and the treachery, I was just scared to death that it had fallen.
Haley hadn’t fallen but had somehow navigated down the cliff uninjured and reached the Buffalo River with the help of her imaginary friend Alicia.
As the first day turned to night, Zega followed the river and ended up falling asleep on top of a rock on the river. The sun rose and a hungry and thirsty six-year-old headed downriver.
Search and rescue teams deployed and helicopters equipped with infrared cameras circled the river valley in search of Haley. She told 5NEWS she remembered seeing and hearing the helicopters and doing everything she could to be seen to no avail.
Night fell for the second time and fearing it would rain, Haley found a small cave to spend her second night alone in the desert.
Temperatures dropped into the 40s that night, and Syer recalls walking into the bathroom of the cabin that became home during the ordeal and opening the window to smell the air. cool, thinking how that must feel to his daughter.
May Day arrived with Haley still missing. Syer, search and rescue teams, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and Colleen Nick, founder of the Morgan Nick Foundation, had formed one of the largest search and rescue groups in the history of the ‘Arkansas with over 1,000 volunteers.
However, over time, their research efforts began to change.
“We basically thought she was taken away at this point because there was no trace of her and so we kind of changed the direction of the search,” Syer said.
Little did she know that Haley had already been found around the same time.
Two men who lived in the area had approached search and rescue teams suggesting a place they thought Haley might have wandered off to. Research teams dismissed the idea, but that wouldn’t put men off.
Knowing the area and the terrain well, William Jeff Villines and Lyttle James set out with two mules and headed into the valley, where they eventually found Haley curled up in a ball near the banks of the Buffalo River.
The men offered Haley a diet coke and chocolate pudding as they placed her on a mule and began their climb out of the valley and onto a nearby road.
“I hate Diet Coke, and I didn’t like Diet Coke at the time, but it was like mana from heaven,” Zega said.
After a few hours, the three men got back on the road and were able to contact crews to bring an ambulance to their location as medical professionals began to assess Haley.
Back at the cabin, Syer recalls seeing former Washington County Sheriff Steve Whitmill tearing down the long driveway. Anxiously awaiting news, Syer and others stood on the porch, ready to hear what Whitmill would tell them.
“He gets out of the vehicle and we’re just standing there watching,” Syer said. “He takes a few steps, he has a very serious look on his face, and then he says, ‘I have a little girl who wants to see her mom.'”
Syer raced inside to get Haley’s favorite blanket before getting into Sheriff Whitmill’s vehicle as they left to reunite mother and daughter. Along the way, Syer says she and Sheriff Whitmill shouted to search and rescue teams that Haley was found and safe – hearing the message echo down the line as the news broke. was spreading.
Arriving at the ambulance where Haley was, Syer was thrilled to see her baby girl.
“They opened the doors, and I just crawled onto the stretcher and was like I was hovering over her. She was so tired and exhausted and didn’t have much to say, but she was so happy,” Syer said.
After 52 long hours, Haley Zega was safe and back with her family. At six years old, she had defied all odds and survived alone, without food, water or shelter.
Today, Haley still hikes the trail at least once a year, and at every opportunity she’s happy to show off the waterfall that bears her name to any hiking partner.
Haley was safe and sound. The family is grateful that the outcome was not what it easily could have been. They don’t let experience define who they are, but rather use it as a way to teach others to be safe.
Syer urges anyone hiking with children to bring whistles and dress in light clothing. Both are great tools to be seen and heard if someone is apart.
Haley can be reached on her social media pages by following her on Instagram or YouTube.
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