Deep in a forest in eastern Texas, hundreds of rescuers are desperately searching for a missing three-year-old boy. The boy, Ezra Parrish, has been lost for almost a day, and hope is beginning to fade. But then a dog sniffs out the scent of something nearby.
On May 27, 2017, Gloria Cooper was enjoying an evening at a Dave & Buster’s restaurant in Houston, Texas. She was accompanied by her husband, Jeremy, while her three-year-old son from a previous relationship, Ezra, was on a camping expedition some 60 miles away.
Indeed, Ezra’s biological father had taken the boy and his siblings to Sam Houston National Forest, which is about an hour’s drive north of Houston. And as one of just four National Forests in the whole state, the area is a popular destination for campers and hikers looking to escape the city.
Ezra’s father had chosen to take his family to the Stubblefield Lake area, a remote spot just off Forest Road 208. But what started as a family adventure soon turned into a nightmare when little Ezra toddled off from the campsite and into the forest alone.
At 3:00 p.m., then, Ezra’s family placed a heart-wrenching call to the New Waverly Fire Department. The boy was missing, they told the authorities, and nobody knew where he had gone. Moreover, with temperatures hovering around 90 °F, fears for his safety were running high.
Hours later, Ezra was still missing. And although dozens of rescuers had spent the afternoon meticulously searching the forest, no sign of the boy had been found. Finally, someone contacted Ezra’s mom, Gloria, in Houston and delivered a message that no mother ever wants to hear.
When Gloria answered her phone, a stranger on the other end informed her that her son had gone missing from the campsite earlier that day. Now, night was falling over Sam Houston National Forest, and poor Ezra was still nowhere to be found.
Heartbroken that it had taken so long for the news to reach them, Gloria and Jeremy jumped in their car and made a beeline for Stubblefield Lake. And as they drove, they began making panicked phone calls to family members near and far begging for assistance.
Among those who offered their help were Gloria’s sister and her niece, Lalaine, who lived in California. Indeed, the pair hopped on the first flight out to Houston and rushed to join the rescue effort. And by the time they arrived, the mission to locate Ezra was in full swing.
The search continued throughout the night. By 1:00 a.m. the next morning, though, people were growing tired. However, there was still no sign of Ezra – and everyone knew that time was running out. Desperate, the Chief of the New Waverly Fire Department, Jason Slot, sent a call out for additional resources.
Luckily, the Texas EquuSearch Mounted Search and Recovery Team, or TXEQ, were on hand to respond. An organization of some 600 volunteers, TXEQ are often called in to assist authorities in Texas and nationwide with locating missing people.
And so in the early hours of May 28, 2017, member Jan Tipps sent out a request for TXEQ volunteers to join the search. Despite the hour, they responded, and by 4:30 a.m. a group had gathered at the campsite. Together, they began searching the forest for clues.
“It was very eerie hearing family members out in the woods calling Ezra’s name in the dark,” volunteer David White wrote later on the TXEQ blog. But despite everyone’s best efforts, Ezra still hadn’t been found as the sun rose.
By now, the fire department and TXEQ had been joined by ever growing numbers of volunteers. Some were experienced rescuers who knew the terrain, such as the Sam Houston Trails Coalition, while others were simply concerned citizens who had heard about Ezra and wanted to help.
Overall, some 200 people combed an area covering four miles for any sign of the missing boy. Some used machetes to cut through the undergrowth; others drove quad bikes along the trails, their eyes peeled for Ezra along the way; others still brought dogs to help them sniff out any clues.
TXEQ’s president, Tim Miller, even found himself having to make some terrible decisions. Launching a boat into a nearby lake, for instance, he used sonar equipment to scan the water for signs of a body. Luckily, the hunt turned up nothing – and Miller was able to put that nightmarish possibility on hold.
As midday came and went, and the oppressive heat returned, hope of finding Ezra alive began to dwindle. And as a press conference loomed, Miller began to wonder how to address the reporters. Privately, he suspected that recovering the boy’s body was the best that they could now hope for.
As Miller prepared for the conference, volunteers continued to comb the area. And then, finally, in an area just a mile from the campsite, a dog alerted searchers to something nearby. The canine had sniffed out a scent and had got the attention of some of the searchers, who moved closer to the area. Among the searchers was Ezra’s 21-year-old cousin, Lalaine Dungca. She had been desperately scanning the trails for hours, calling out Ezra’s name over and over.
As the dog eagerly tracked the smell, Lalaine called out again. And this time, her cry was met by the sound that all of the searchers had been longing to hear. It was Ezra’s voice; the boy was alive. Following the cry, New Waverly Firefighters discovered the child concealed in an area of thick grass. And amazingly, he only had minor injuries.
As Ezra’s family gathered around the young boy, news began to spread that the search had not been in vain. And although Ezra received treatment at the Children’s Hospital in The Woodlands, TX, he appeared to be no worse off for his ordeal. Meanwhile, rescue crews were in a celebratory mood. Later, Montgomery Co. Search and Rescue’s Steve Degnar told People, “The greatest outcome we could have asked for just happened right now.”