JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The location where Bri’ya and Braxton Williams took shelter in the woods for more than two days after disappearing from their Westside home is no longer a mystery.
News4Jax was given exclusive access to private property where the children, ages 5 and 6, were found by rescuers. The shelter was first described as a pump house but turned out to be a hunting blind.
We’ve also learned why the siblings went into the woods in the first place. According to a newly released police report, the children said they went into the woods to look for a treehouse. They told police they stayed there a long time, and no one else was with them.
Bri’ya and Braxton were missing for more than 48 hours. Their disappearance Dec. 15 from their yard in Paradise Village Mobile Home Park prompted an Amber Alert and a massive search near the family’s home.
After more than two days of searching, rescuers finally spotted the kids in the woods nearby. Because they were so focused on grabbing the children and getting them to safety, they didn’t take time to examine the structure where the pair had hunkered down.
Rescuers went back into the woods Friday so they could get a better look and take photos for their reports, and News4Jax went with them, discovering the structure was really an old hunting blind.
“It gets thick real quick,” Lt. Josh Montoro with Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department told News4Jax as he led us into the woods on our trek to the spot where the kids were found.
Once we got through a line of palmetto plants and garbage, like old tires and gas tanks, we had to dodge exposed tree roots and sharp, thorn-lined branches that go unnoticed until it’s too late.
“Watch out for…,” Montoro started to say to News4Jax anchor Joy Purdy.
“Ouch!” Purdy said, already running into the sharp branches.
“Those are thorns right there,” Montoro added.
“Got it,” Purdy answered.
We could see where first responders hacked through with machetes and walking sticks.
“You can see where they made these paths,” Montoro pointed out.
The brush was thin in some parts and thicker in others, and the deeper into the woods we walked with JFRD, the more water we came across -- and the more places where a child could hide.
“Coming through this thick stuff, and any time we’d find a canopy of like pine needles or anything, we would look underneath,” explained Montoro. “And the guys would continue on their line the best they could and try and navigate and stay in line, because if we’d go too far, too far to the left or too far to the right, then we’re searching the same area.
“As you can see right here, it’s so thick, the guys would just, just push right through to the best of their ability," Montoro said. “At the same time, we’re carrying medical supplies and equipment.”
At one point, Montoro was standing about 20 feet from our location and we couldn’t even see him.
Search and rescue crews didn’t stop and didn’t give up. They continued looking for Braxton and Bri’ya in daylight and in darkness.
“The day we found them, we had 19 guys in line -- 16 of them were firemen, three were cops,” Montoro said.
Also battling through the briers with rescuers was 2½ year-old JFRD K-9 Izzy. She was outfitted with a GPS tracking device on her collar. Her belly was rubbed raw by the brush.
“For as sweet as she is, she’s tough as nails,” JFRD Chief Gary Kuehner said of his rescue dog.
Just before the kids were found Dec. 17 -- again, two days after they went missing -- a storm was approaching. Capt. Mark Roberts was watching the weather from the command center and gave rescuers their 30-minute warning before the search would have to stop for the storm.
“We didn’t want them in here -- with up to 60 mph winds is what they were projecting with lightning and the heavy rains -- it’s just not safe for them,” Roberts said.
Montoro described what happened just 15 minutes later as a miracle.
“God just happened to move us a little bit to the left, a little bit to the right -- put us in the right spot,” he said.
“I said, ‘Man, I hear kids too!’ And that’s when I was like, I didn’t’ know what else to say, except to say, ‘Hello?’" Montoro said. "And then that’s when we saw Braxton stick his head out the hole and was like, 'Hey guys!’”
The team ran full speed ahead and zeroed in on those kids -- found about a quarter-mile from their home.
“So, you can’t see left or right and we yelled, 'We got 'em! We got 'em!’ And you could just hear everybody’s excitement. The guys right here were all hugging and high-fiving,” Montoro recalled.
Kuehner said the GPS devices worn by several searchers show the paths the teams carved through the woods. We were able to follow that path as we headed back into the woods with rescuers to the exact location where the kids were found.
“As you can see, that’s not a pump house. It’s not a dog house. It’s a hunting blind, but we never saw the other side of it,” explained Montoro.
Their focus was instead on the kids. They had bumps, bruises, scratches and mosquito bites. None of those things were life-threatening, but rescuers did have one concern.
“The only real concern we had, and we let the ER know at [UF Health], is that they drank water up off the ground,” Montoro said.
The children stayed two nights at the hospital and were released Dec. 19.
“I, I still haven’t slept in about four days," Montoro admitted. “We’re still so excited.”
All three firefighters described the search for Bri’ya and Braxton as “an incredible team effort,” adding it was “an amazing thing to be a part of, even before we knew we had them.”