Wright Words: Aided by angels, 2-year-old boy and his dog survive night in Virginia forest

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 1 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

Jakob Heintzelman and his Labrador retriever, Chance, were lost for 10 hours last Tuesday evening in Virginia.

Kodi Wright Photography

There are at least three alternate headlines that could have told the story of 2-year-old Jakob Heintzelman. Each would have grabbed the reader right by the heart:

  • “2-year-old boy drowns in Virginia’s Shenandoah River”
  • “Body of 2-year-old boy recovered near George Washington National Forest”
  • “2-year-old boy abducted — Amber Alert issued”
Because of angels — both unseen and in the flesh — Jakob and his Labrador retriever, Chance, are alive today. In the end, those sensational, gut-wrenching headlines, no matter how likely they once seemed when the story began, never had a chance.

The improbable adventure started in the early evening of Sept. 24 when young Jakob and Chance successfully navigated a locked screen door and vanished in the thick woods outside their home on the banks of the Shenandoah River near Woodstock, Va. Chance — the family’s 1-year-old rescue dog they discovered last year in a cardboard box near death on the streets of Nashville — was healthy, energetic and always game for adventure with his best friend. Find one and the other is always right behind.

Brandi Mumaw realized they were missing and called frantically for her son Jakob and the dog. She ran outside and in, then back out again. When neither responded, with darkness soon to drape their property, Brandi called 911.

Brandi and her family, including her parents Billy Mumaw and Heidi Phelps, learned more in the next 10 hours than she ever imagined possible. It was a crash course in human nature, doubt, the power of prayer and of faith. She discovered that every one us, even the complete stranger, has angelic qualities.

Within minutes of the initial call, deputies converged on her home and Brandi watched the chaos unfold from her front porch. Soon the county sheriff, Tim Carter, arrived on scene and assured her that his team and their search and rescue experts knew precisely what they were doing. They’d trained countless hours for this very moment and what she was seeing might have looked chaotic, but it was masterfully controlled.

As the massive search began, Sheriff Carter led a prayer that must have rung from the humble riverbanks all the way to heaven. He prayed for Brandi, for Chance and for Jakob — each by name. It was a call to God for both comfort and hands. Even more, it was a request for angels.

An Amber Alert was issued and by the blessing of social media, volunteers — most of them strangers to the family — began arriving by the dozens. They came with boats to search the river, they came with climbing gear to search the rocky mountain line, and they came with food, water and words embedded with faith. By the end of the evening, one deputy estimated there were more than 400 total volunteers and professionals engaged in the search.

Brandi and two deputy chaplains — men of God who fueled the family’s hope as the temperatures dropped and the statistics started to turn against them — spent most of the night outside watching the flashlights in the dark and listening to the searchers call out to Jakob and Chance. It wasn’t until early morning when her father convinced her to go inside their cozy home.

As midnight passed, then 1 a.m. and 2 a.m., the internal questions were unavoidable. “Had he been taken? Why wasn’t Chance responding to calls? Were they still together? Had they been drawn to the water, which is so often the case? Were they afraid? Cold? Crying?”

Meanwhile, Master Deputy Chris Snyder and his bloodhound, Judge, from nearby Fauquier County had also arrived to join the search. Snyder had Judge quickly sniff Jakob’s car seat and the two set off into the chilly night.

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