Mother: Lost hiker ‘couldn’t go forward and she couldn’t go back’
Amanda Eller ‘would have given anything to have had my cellphone’
WAILUKU — The mother of hiker Amanda Eller, who went missing for more than two weeks and lived off berries and guava in the bewildering forest of Maui’s northeast side, said her daughter will take her cellphone on future outdoor treks.
“Before her journey, she wanted to unplug, she didn’t like those things,” Julia Eller said Saturday. “All those things . . . she has a whole new appreciation for. She said, ‘I would have given anything to have had my cellphone.’ “
Physical therapist and yoga instructor Amanda Eller, 35, left her cellphone, keys and wallet in her white Toyota RAV4 at the “Hunters Trail” parking lot of Makawao Forest Reserve midday May 8. She would not be seen again until Friday afternoon, when a private helicopter operated by Windward Aviation and paid for by a GoFundMe page, found Eller about 5 to 7 miles from where she started out.
Julia Eller said Amanda Eller, who was spotted near a stream in Kailua reservoir area at 3:45 p.m. was at a “critical juncture” when she was found.
“She couldn’t go forward and she couldn’t go back,” Julia Eller said. “It was a 20-foot cliff in front of her . . . Below that was a boxed canyon that she would not have been able to get out of.”
Javier Cantellops, who helped lead the weekslong volunteer-based search effort that amassed more than 1,000 people, said the terrain is advanced, even for experts.
“As a special operations Army ranger, I’ve been in some of the toughest terrain you could imagine, from the deserts, to the mountains, to complete jungle,” Cantellops said Saturday. “This particular area, yeah, it’s beautiful, and it’s got a lot of made trails, but it also has a lot of pig trails, and human trails, there are a lot of gulches, there are a lot of areas that look very similar. As you’re walking down a trail you see perfectly clear, you turn around and the trail disappears.”
During a search for Eller with two firefighters and four others, Cantellops said, the group went down the wrong trail, and “that’s exactly what happened to Amanda.”
“If I wouldn’t have had my phone, GPS and compass, I would not have known, because it all looks so similar,” he said.
On May 8, Julia Eller said, Amanda Eller went for a 3-mile walk in the forest, rested on a fallen log, meditated, took a little nap and woke up “disoriented.” At that point, she knew she was lost, and she covered ground to get back to the trail and her car.
Her immediate thought was, “I have to get back to my car,” father John Eller said Saturday afternoon. “When you get turned around, you just go in circles. Her plan was to get back to the car. As it got desperate, I’m sure her mindset changed.”
Early on, Amanda Eller lost her shoes during a flash flood, her mother said. She had taken them off, the river quickly swelled and it swept them away.
During nearly two and a half weeks fighting for survival, Eller found water sources and foraged for food, such as berries, guava and various leaves, according to Julia Eller. But on many days she couldn’t find anything to eat. Plus, Eller, who has a doctorate’s degree in physical therapy, sustained a knee injury, which she tried to treat, all while watching her “body fat melting away.”
Nights were cold, and Eller used brush and anything she could find to cover up, Julia Eller said. The cane grass was uncomfortable, though.
Amanda Eller did see helicopters at various points and tried to signal for them, “but they were moving too fast,” her father said.
The Maui Memorial Medical Center doctor treating Eller attributed her survival to intelligence and prior good health.
“She was well-educated. . . . She did a very good job with her background,” said Dr. Zora Bulatovic. “She was able to eat appropriate things and stay hydrated.”
Eller sustained a fracture to her left tibia, making it difficult to walk, severe burns on lower extremities from the sun, a skin infection and leg wounds, Bulatovic said. However, her electrolytes and hydration, which are among the highest priorities during survival, were “amazingly great,” she added.
“She was able to manage to stay hydrated with the river water and eat fresh fruit from the trees,” Bulatovic said. “I was expecting to see more. You’d expect to see electrolyte imbalance and severely dehydrated.”
Bulatovic, Julia Eller, Cantellops and family spokeswoman Sarah Haynes spoke during a news conference at the hospital Saturday in lieu of Amanda Eller, who Haynes said is not doing interviews at this time. Instead, Amanda Eller posted from her hospital bed a Facebook message on her official search page Saturday, thanking people for their support.
“Seeing the way that the community of Maui came together. . . . Just under the idea of helping one person make it out of the woods alive — Just warms my heart,” she said. “And just seeing the power of prayer and the power of love when everybody combines their efforts — is incredible. It could move mountains.”
Eller remains hospitalized Saturday, and her doctor projected a few days before her release. Intravenous antibiotics are currently combating her skin infection.
John Eller said his family will likely return home to Maryland in coming weeks but that his daughter plans to stay on Maui. After recovery, he added, she will probably resume her physical therapy practice and get back to patients.
“I suspect she will need some time to get her strength back,” he said. “It was rough, what’s she’s been through. She needs time to get her health back.”
In the immediate future, John Eller said, his daughter just wants “take a shower at her own home.”
* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.