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May Day miracle: Mother, daughter remember rescue 20 years ago

by Becca Martin-Brown | May 9, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.
“I think a huge lesson that can be learned from my story is that there are good people everywhere,” says Haley Zega, now 26, pictured hugging her mom, Kelly Syer. “There are people willing to step up and help when there’s nothing in it for them, other than to see someone else get a happy ending. Community really is so powerful, and I’m proof. There’s so much bad news in the world, but the light does exist, you just have to know where to look.” (Courtesy photo/Kelly Syer)

Every mom in the world has probably done what Haley Zega's grandparents did that April day 20 years ago.

Haley, 6, was hiking with Jay and Joyce Hale in the forest above the Buffalo National River, in the area of Hawksbill Crag. She remembers she was tired and hot and wasn't getting her own way, so she sat down on a rock and refused to move. And her grandparents used a classic piece of parental psychology: "Fine, then you can stay here. We're leaving."

In the couple of minutes it took for them to walk just out of sight, Haley decided to head out in the direction she thought they were going. Instead, she took a path that carried her away from them -- and when they doubled back, she was nowhere to be seen.

Haley, the Hales' only grandchild and the only child of Kelly Syer and her husband then, Steve Zega, was missing for 52 hours. By the time she was found, she had climbed down out of the mountains, walked along the river for several miles, spent one night on a rock in the middle of the water and the second night in a cave. She'd had nothing to eat or drink, was hungry and dehydrated and was in an area where no one expected her to be, about 5 miles from where she started. Two "good Samaritans" suspected the 1,000-plus searchers were looking in the wrong place, found Haley and carried her out of the wilderness aboard a mule.

"I was just so relieved to see people," remembers Haley Zega, now 26. "I had been alone for so long, and it was just a relief to know that I wasn't alone anymore. They were so kind to me, and I trusted them because I didn't have another choice, and they turned out to be heroes. I truly owe my life to William Jeff Villines and Lytle James. They gave me chocolate pudding and Diet Coke, and I remember one of them carved a makeshift spoon out of a little tree branch. I was so exhausted but so relieved."

She swears she was never scared during the ordeal.

"My parents always told me that anything I set my mind to, I could do, and I didn't see getting myself out of the forest once I was lost as any different," she says. "It was a problem I got myself into, and therefore I thought I could and should be able to solve it on my own.

"I was not afraid of animals, I wasn't afraid of being alone, I wasn't afraid of the dark. I had no concept of the amount of danger that I was truly in, and I believe that if I was lost at my age now, I would be more fearful than I was at age 6 – because I simply didn't understand the danger at that age. I knew it was a bad situation, but at no point did I believe that I wouldn't make it out."

^^^

Life in Fayetteville was pretty idyllic for the Zegas in the months leading up to Haley's disappearance.

"We lived in the Washington-Willow Historic District in a great little house, and I loved being able to walk Haley to school ... at Washington Elementary," her mom, who is now married to Scott Syer, remembers. "Dropping her at school every morning was a wonderful ritual because it was such a vibrant, warm environment. I worked as the director of development for what was then the North Arkansas Symphony (now SoNA) and was involved with Junior League of Northwest Arkansas. Haley's dad, Steve Zega, was (and still is) an attorney and was a Justice of the Peace with the Washington County Quorum Court, as well as an Army National Guard officer and a high school sports official. We were very busy, and having just Haley, who was very well-behaved and able to occupy herself, she was often part of all of those things."

On that particular Sunday, April 29, 2001, Syer had a "rare unscheduled day -- rare in the sense that nobody else's activities or needs were taking priority. My parents had planned their hike for a while, looking for a time when they would find lots of wildflowers to appreciate. Steve was at Fort Chaffee for several days of military training, so I decided to shop for flowers and then go to the Fayetteville Film Festival. I was excited for Haley to get to do something special, and equally excited to have a stretch of time all to myself. It was a beautiful spring day, cool in the morning when she and my parents left Fayetteville but much warmer later."

Syer was happily settled at the festival when "they announced over the speaker during a film that I needed to come to the back of the auditorium. I was immediately alarmed, but my initial terrified thought was that Steve had been injured in artillery training." Instead, she was told Haley had "wandered off," and friends Cathy Bass -- the wife of Clay Bass, who was hiking with her parents and Haley -- and Fran Alexander had come to take her to Newton County.

"I started trying to reach Steve, but the cell service was bad on his end, and we kept having dropped calls," Syer remembers. "Eventually I was able to get enough information to him that he could leave for the Hawksbill Crag trailhead. Cathy and Fran loaded me up in Cathy's car, took me home, and gave me instructions to gather things in case we had to be there overnight -- and to bundle up items that would have a strong scent of Haley on them for the canine search teams. (Her pillowcase and a favorite dress-up dress were what I took.) I was running through the upstairs of our home, grabbing things as fast as I could -- and then we were on our way to Cave Mountain Road."

^^^

Haley says a couple of things made finding her more difficult. She wasn't wearing any bright colors, and she didn't know the best thing to do to be rescued was to stay put. Somehow, she found a safe way down the 200-foot bluffs to the river. She is candid about saying she had help of a sort -- an "imaginary friend" she called Alicia.

"I've always referred to her as an imaginary friend, and I will always refer to her as an imaginary friend," Haley says, adding that she doesn't want to analyze further. "In the intervening years, people have come up with theories of who they believe that she was, be it the ghost of another little girl or a guardian angel or just a psychological phenomenon. I respect these theories, but personally I'm not interested in speculation. She was an entity that kept me company when I needed her and at times helped me navigate the forest. I'm grateful to her, and I'll leave it at that. I haven't seen her again ... but I'm glad I had her while I did."

The fact is that Haley managed to get down the bluffs, crossed a piece of the river to get to an island where she thought search helicopters might see her, got back to the mainland, found a cave to spend the second night and was unscathed when she was found. She admits she "had a rich inner life and a pretty active imagination that was also very grounded in reality ... but I soaked up information like a sponge, I was extremely curious, and I had a pretty good memory as well; once I learned a piece of information that I was interested in, I latched onto it." She says it was that confidence in herself that helped her, both in the woods and later.

"I never felt traumatized in any way by my adventure in the woods," she says. "I go hiking all the time, I love camping and canoeing and being out in nature, so I don't think my experience scared me off of that in anyway. There are other things that have happened in my life that were far more traumatizing, but none of them make for as interesting a story."

^^^

Grandmother Joyce Hale admits to all the emotions one might expect -- including "many layers of guilt."

"First was the agony of being entrusted by Haley's parents to keep her safe and failing," she remembers. "I felt responsible for disrupting so many people's lives to help search. I saw the financial expense to organizations, public agencies, and individuals as a result of my carelessness.

"With all our friends around and the adrenalin running high, I did pretty well with people. It was the nights that were sleepless agony. ... Staying stoic around others was manageable, but body wrenching sobs were harder to control in the night.

"It is only because of Kelly's remarkable personality and attitude that this crisis didn't damage our family," Hale reflects. "I couldn't envision how our lives could go on with the usual family events if Haley wasn't there. How could her parents live in their house and see everything that was a part of Haley? I was frightened that I might lose my granddaughter and because of it also lose my daughter."

"I am asked a lot if I ever blamed or was angry with my parents, and I can say with 100% honesty that I did not feel anger or place any blame," Syer says. "I know precisely the people my parents are and what they meant for that day to be for Haley, and I knew anything that might have happened was not a result of neglect. I so vividly remember my mother asking me on the first night if I could ever forgive her, and I emphatically told her there was nothing to forgive."

"Since the situation turned out well, we have all, including Haley, come through it knowing we are stronger than we might have guessed, feel eternal gratitude to all who took action whether they knew us or not, and hope that people will have learned some outdoor safety lessons," Hale says.

^^^

Among the more than 1,000 people who came to help in the search for Haley was Colleen Nick, a mom whose daughter, Morgan, had been missing for not quite six years.

"The Search and Rescue team on site that night called me," she remembers. "I had worked with them before when children were missing in the woods. They felt I could provide some support to the family. ... Our focus was to be a liaison between the family and the Command Center. We were there for the duration of the search."

It was on the evening of June 9, 1995, that Morgan -- also 6 at the time -- was abducted from a little league ball field in Alma by an unidentified man.

"She was attending the game with her mother and had joined some friends to catch lightning bugs," a narrative on the website of the Morgan Nick Foundation recounts. "Morgan was last seen standing near her mother's car where she had stopped to empty sand from her shoes.

"Witnesses observed a man watching the youngster as she was playing with other children at the park," the website goes on. "The witness also saw a red Ford pickup with a white camper parked nearby that disappeared at about the same time as Morgan. The man was described as white, 6 feet tall, with a medium to solid build, a mustache and a 1-inch beard. At the time, he was believed to be 23-38 years old."

Colleen Nick says she didn't intend to become an expert in missing children. "I only wanted to find Morgan. She was my sole focus." A year after Morgan's disappearance, she helped start the Morgan Nick Foundation "as two people trying to do the right thing."

"Now we are 10 strong," she says. "Last year we worked with 1,500-plus missing persons and their families in Arkansas, and provided education to 40,000-plus students."

"At first I didn't want to talk to her because I didn't understand how she could help me, and our circumstances were so different than what happened to her own little Morgan," Syer says of contact with Nick in 2001. "I didn't want to acknowledge how frightening the situation really was to someone I didn't know and thought it was a distraction from what I needed to be paying attention to. But after just a couple of moments on the phone with her, I knew we needed her. ...

"She took on the enormous, emotional role of being the connection or conduit between our family and the search operations so we could have privacy and try to cling to our sanity. She also helped us navigate communication with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and kept us informed of how we could make the search effort as large and effective as possible.," Syer recalls. "She advised us on how to manage the press conference we held on the third day to plead for Haley's life, in case someone had actually taken her. She told me that I had been strong and kept a brave face for long enough, and it was OK to let people see how much anguish we were feeling. The permission she gave me to be a scared, vulnerable, grieving mother really mattered because I truly thought I would be failing Haley if I showed any chink in my armor."

What Nick wants parents to know is simple.

"If you cannot find your child within 10 minutes of beginning your search, call the police! Time is the enemy when children are taken. If someone takes a child and has a vehicle, every minute that passes is one or more miles the abductor is putting between you and your child. ... The absolute best thing that can happen is you call the police, they show up and immediately find your child! This is a win!"

^^^

It was shortly after the Zegas' press conference that Haley was found -- but it took awhile for word to travel back to the command center down the road from photographer Tim Ernst's home.

"My friend Kelly Carter actually was able to reach me at Tim's cabin, asking if the breaking news reports that she had been found were true -- and we didn't even know ourselves at that point," Syer remembers. "I didn't want to jump to conclusions, so I stayed quiet about the call -- until former Sheriff Steve Whitmill arrived at the cabin in his SUV, walked toward a big group of us, and with a very solemn face said, 'We've got a little girl looking for her mama.' The instantaneous screaming was the best sound I have ever heard -- followed closely by the echoes of searchers calling to each other in the woods. I will remember those few minutes for the rest of my life.

"When we got to the ambulance, all I wanted to do was grab her -- but I didn't know if she was hurt in any way, so I was cautious," Syer goes on. "She was so tired, dehydrated and had lost a bit of weight, so she didn't look exactly like herself. She was very quiet, somewhat overwhelmed, but clearly relieved. We left right away for the hospital in Harrison, where she was admitted overnight and treated for dehydration."

"I remember being in the back of an ambulance, and it was the first time I had ever seen my dad cry," Haley says. "I was so exhausted and dehydrated that as happy as I was to be found, I don't imagine that I was particularly expressive at that point, but I remember my mom climbing into the back of the ambulance, and I could feel the relief radiating off her."

Mother and daughter agree that their brush with disaster only strengthened their bond.

"I think it would've been really easy for my mom to become a helicopter parent, but I know that she made a conscious choice not to do so," Haley says. "We had a really good relationship then and now."

"My perspectives on parenting before Haley getting lost were actually reinforced," says Syer. "I always knew she was capable, strong and whip-smart, and after she came through her ordeal with no real trauma -- and communicated such an array of strategies and coping mechanisms she used while lost -- it reinforced my belief that a small child can do so much more than most of us think.

"I did not become any more protective than I was before, because I had proof that she was level-headed and stable in a crisis. I will say that when you lose your most precious thing, when it is returned, you have a much better perspective of what it means to you.

"I have said since May 1, 2001 that I wear rose-colored glasses about my home state and I'm never taking them off," Syer adds. "In my wildest dreams I could not have imagined the way Northwest Arkansas -- and far beyond -- showed up for our family."

“The woods don’t have to be a scary place if you go in prepared,” says Haley Zega, who promises she still loves the outdoors despite her ordeal 20 years ago. “There are many common sense things like wear a whistle, bring enough water, wear bright clothing, know where you’re going and how long you expect to be gone, as well as how rugged the hike is. There are lots of safety tips that you can teach young children so that they don’t get into a situation like mine — things like if you think you’re lost, stop moving and hug a tree. Teach them how to identify trail markers so they don’t get off the path in the first place. There are tons of easy safety tips that can save a life.”

(Courtesy photo/Kelly Syer)
“The woods don’t have to be a scary place if you go in prepared,” says Haley Zega, who promises she still loves the outdoors despite her ordeal 20 years ago. “There are many common sense things like wear a whistle, bring enough water, wear bright clothing, know where you’re going and how long you expect to be gone, as well as how rugged the hike is. There are lots of safety tips that you can teach young children so that they don’t get into a situation like mine — things like if you think you’re lost, stop moving and hug a tree. Teach them how to identify trail markers so they don’t get off the path in the first place. There are tons of easy safety tips that can save a life.” (Courtesy photo/Kelly Syer)
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/AARON SKINNER
Holding daughter Haley in her arms, Kelly Zega beams after returning to Fayetteville Wednesday morning. Haley, 6, was reunited with her parents, Kelly and Steve, after being lost for more than 50 hours in the Buffalo National River area of Newton County.
5-2-01
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/AARON SKINNER Holding daughter Haley in her arms, Kelly Zega beams after returning to Fayetteville Wednesday morning. Haley, 6, was reunited with her parents, Kelly and Steve, after being lost for more than 50 hours in the Buffalo National River area of Newton County. 5-2-01
Haley was on a nature excursion in 2001 with her grandparents, Jay and Joyce Hale, when she went missing near Hawksbill Crag. “Rather than turning into helicopter parents and grandparents, I think Haley has proven her competence and inner strength to stand up to the unexpected and the challenging,” says Joyce Hale. “She has traveled the world, some entirely on her own, with confidence and resourcefulness and continues to look for more adventures. Kelly and I have learned that one should avoid assuming the worst, stay involved to work things out, and be grateful for friends in a time of need.”

(Courtesy photo/Kelly Syer)
Haley was on a nature excursion in 2001 with her grandparents, Jay and Joyce Hale, when she went missing near Hawksbill Crag. “Rather than turning into helicopter parents and grandparents, I think Haley has proven her competence and inner strength to stand up to the unexpected and the challenging,” says Joyce Hale. “She has traveled the world, some entirely on her own, with confidence and resourcefulness and continues to look for more adventures. Kelly and I have learned that one should avoid assuming the worst, stay involved to work things out, and be grateful for friends in a time of need.” (Courtesy photo/Kelly Syer)
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Where are they now?

Haley Zega graduated from Fayetteville High School and went on to earn a Bachelor of Arts in Acting with honors from Pace University’s Dyson College of Arts and Sciences in New York City. In March 2020, the emergency situation in New York and New Jersey, where she was living and working when the covid-19 pandemic first escalated, brought her back to Fayetteville. Now considering her next move to cultivate acting opportunities, Haley has been spending time helping the team at TheatreSquared, working as a digital marketing content specialist and trainer, and was recently cast in the local production of the traveling immersive theater experience “Art Heist,” a national show being performed as part of the Walton Arts Center’s Artosphere Festival.

Kelly Syer currently serves as the director of marketing for the Butterfield Trail Village retirement community in Fayetteville. She also owns a small digital marketing business, Socialliance, specializing in social media content development.

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