ST. GEORGE — An elderly Houston couple visiting Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument remained hospitalized Friday after surviving six days stranded in the desert.
But if another day had passed, police said, the harrowing ordeal could have had a tragic ending.
The story of the couple's rescue will be "memorable forever," Kane County Sheriff's Chief Deputy Alan Alldredge said.
"It's totally unbelievable. So many things seem to have fallen in place on their behalf," he said. "Many little things fell into place that allowed the Bylers to be located alive."
Helena Byler, 78, and her husband, Gerald Byler, 76, had been staying in Kanab when they decided to take a day trip to Lake Powell on Sept. 26, Alldredge wrote on the Facebook page for the sheriff's office. Using a GPS system, they set out from their motel in a small rental car, heading into Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
But the paved road soon gave way to increasingly impassable terrain, Helena Byler recalled, speaking with her husband at one of Dixie Regional Medical Center's facilities in St. George.
"There were no cars around. No tourists. No one," she said. "I was driving and it was going up and down, up and down, up and down."
At one point, the woman said she believed she saw a sign warning that four-wheel drive was needed to continue, but her husband, who was behind the wheel at the time, wanted to continue.
When the car became disabled on a rugged road, the couple set off on foot, spending the night outside in the cold rain. All the while, they never saw signs of other people in the area, Gerald Byler said.
"There was no interface with humanity in any shape or form," he said. "Nothing came driving by. No one. And if I heard a bird tweet, I'd holler, ‘Hello.'"
By morning, Gerald Byler could no longer walk. Helena Byler, who does yoga and runs four times a week, said she felt strong enough to keep going, so she left her husband with the few pecans they had and she set off on her own.
"I said, 'I can do it. I can walk. I can find help,'" she recalled.
That same morning, staff at the motel where the couple had been staying reported them overdue.
For the next five days, Helena Byler wandered. She described following dirt roads she found, sleeping in the open with nothing to cover her, making an SOS sign in the road with rocks and flowers, and drinking her own urine, as she had seen on the History Channel, when her thirst became too much.
She also described her belief that at one point she managed to call 911 and a dispatcher named Teresa said she would send a helicopter, though police say there's no record of that call, as well as visions of marble buildings and Navajo indians dressed in white.
"I was not afraid. I don't why I was not scared. I knew that God was with me, that he was going to help us," she said.
On Oct. 2, Dell LeFevre, of Boulder, was in his utility terrain vehicle checking on cattle in the area when he found the woman wandering along Croton Road, severely dehydrated and confused about what had happened.
"It was just lucky I went that way that morning, I debated whether to go down Smokey Mountain Road or Croton Road," LeFevre said. "I went down Croton Road and got down almost to the bottom and seen this gal. She put her arms up in the air and I knew she was in trouble."
It was clear from the woman's ramblings that she was hallucinating, LeFevre said. He got her into the vehicle and gave her what little water he had as he began calling for help.
LeFevre contacted police and began transporting the woman south to rendezvous with a Kane County sheriff's deputy sent to meet them. The woman gave police her name over the phone, LeFevre said, and dispatchers who searched for her on Facebook determined she was from Texas.
On the way to the hospital, the deputy who picked up Byler gave her food and water, talking with her as she began remembering what had happened, including the last time she saw her husband and the name of the road they had been on, Grand Bench Road.
The sheriff's office dispatched another deputy and called for helicopter support from Classic Air Medical out of Page, Arizona, to search for Gerald Byler, who they believed might be back with the disabled rental car.
At the junction of the Croton and Grand Bench roads, the helicopter crew spotted Helena Byler's SOS, Alldredge wrote. The car was spotted 3 miles further east.
The helicopter crew landed and began searching for Byler, who wasn't at the car. About a half-mile back down the road the crew came upon several old trailers by a corral, and inside one of the trailers, dehydrated and unable to move, was Gerald Byler. Another trailer showed evidence that his wife may have spent a few days there, unaware that her husband was nearby.
Gerald Byler was taken by helicopter to Dixie Regional Medical Center and placed in intensive care, Alldredge said. Helena Byler, who calls her husband's recovery "a miracle," was kept overnight in Kane County Hospital before being reunited with her spouse in St. George.
The Bylers are both recovering well and should be strong enough to return home to Texas soon, the chief deputy said. He praised LeFevre for choosing the road he did that day, the cooler weather and the helicopter team from Arizona for contributing to the rescue.
"Many little things fell into place that allowed the Bylers to be located alive," Alldredge wrote. "One more day would probably have resulted in a very different outcome."5 comments on this story
LeFevre credits divine intercession for the Bylers' miraculous rescue and recovery.
"I'm a firm believer in God. He's pulled me out of quite a few messes in my life," LeFevre said. "If she had gone off the road, no one ever would have found them."
He also downplayed his role helping the couple, saying, "I just look at it this way: If I'm ever in a pinch like that, I hope that someone finds me. There's nothing heroic to it, just helping someone out."
Contributing: Caitlin Burchill, Marc Giauque, Ladd Egan