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Lost Nevada family of 6 warmed rocks by fire to survive snow for two days

By Michael Martinez, CNN
December 11, 2013 -- Updated 0209 GMT (1009 HKT)
  • Rescuer describes finding the family to CNN
  • Family warms rocks by fire and puts them in overturned Jeep
  • They are stable with "no frostbite, just some exposure issues," hospital says
  • The two adults "did a fabulous job keeping (the kids) warm," hospital CEO adds

(CNN) -- A family of six survived two days in wintry Nevada mountains by starting a fire and then bringing warm rocks into their overturned Jeep, preventing frostbite to the couple and four small children, local residents said Tuesday.

When three residents finally found the family and their vehicle during a massive search, the family had little food left, so resident Salvador Paredes pulled a candy bar from his pocket and shared it with them, Paredes said.

In a search involving 200 people, rescuers finally located the family on Tuesday after they had gone missing two days earlier during a playful outing in the snow in mountainous northwest Nevada.

Temperatures on Monday morning, hours after the family disappeared, were about 21 degrees below zero, officials said. Winds were relatively light.

The group was found safe in an area called Trinity Canyon, according to the Pershing County Sheriff's Office. They were discovered from a distance by a volunteer searcher using binoculars to scan mountainsides, the sheriff's office said. It wasn't immediately clear which of the three residents made the discovery.

All six were in stable condition with "no frostbite, just some exposure issues," said Patty Bianchi, CEO of Pershing General Hospital. The family consists of a man and woman who have two children together; the woman also was traveling with her nephew and niece, the sheriff's office said.

The adults "did a fabulous job keeping them warm," Bianchi said, referring to the children.

Dr. Doug Vacek said all six were doing "very well," but he had no timetable for their release. "They just expressed that they're really happy and they're going to enjoy this Christmas" more than usual, he told reporters.

Their Jeep softly rolled onto one side while on a dirt road, went down an embankment and landed in a crevice about 15 miles from Lovelock, said Sheila Reitz of the Pershing County Sheriff's Office. It was upside down when rescuers arrived.

Chris Montes, another of the rescuers, told CNN on Tuesday night that "obviously they knew what to do. They kept those kids safe 48 hours in subzero temperatures."

The group apparently ran out of food on Monday, he said. The children, ages 3 to 10, Montes said, "did not seem too bothered. They were in good spirits. They just figured they were camping."

Joining Montes in finding the family was Paredes and his fiancee, who will marry this weekend.

Survival expert Joseph Teti said the adults "made all the right decisions."

It's the little decisions that add up to an enhanced chance for survival in brutal conditions, he said: Staying near the vehicle, telling people where you are traveling and refusing to panic.

"Mother Nature will not allow you to make too many mistakes at all," said Teti, co-star of Discovery Channel's "Dual Survival."

The discovery came about midday Tuesday as more than 200 people scoured a vast frozen range of Nevada spanning 6,000 square miles.

Officials remained undaunted despite the fact they no longer received pings off the cell phone of the missing persons, Reitz said.

On Monday, authorities had been encouraged when they were able to receive a couple of pings from the phone of James Glanton, 34, officials said. Cell service is spotty because the area is so remote.

Also rescued were Glanton's girlfriend, Christina McIntee, 25, along with their two children -- Evan and Chloe -- and McIntee's niece and nephew.

They all set out to play in the snow in the Seven Troughs mountain range Sunday.

A massive search for them involved vehicles, planes and helicopters, Reitz said.

The Civil Air Patrol, an auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force, said its cell phone forensics experts "played a critical role in helping rescuers narrow the search area," according to a statement by the patrol.

"The cell phone forensics team pinpointed where they could not possibly be," Nevada Wing Commander Col. Tim Hahn said in a statement. The forensic efforts "were very time-consuming," he said.

"This morning they provided a key clue that redirected the search and led to the rescue," Hahn said.

One of the CAP crews spotted the family's silver 2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee about the same time that the searcher with binoculars found the lost group, the patrol said.

The Air Force Rescue Coordination Center will award the Nevada Wing with six saves, Hahn said. The children's ages are 10, 4, 4 and 3, the patrol said.

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Amanda Fitzpatrick, mother of 10-year-old Shelby Fitzpatrick, one of the missing children, joined the search in the bitter cold.

"It's been extremely hard, probably the hardest 24 to 36 hours of my life," she earlier told CNN's Piers Morgan. "It's my baby girl."

The family's disappearance was among the most dramatic developments in the Arctic-like weather shocking much of the Lower 48 states.

Big flakes of wet snow and ice snarled travel across the country Tuesday and hit major airline hubs in the Northeast, with about 1,200 flight cancellations reported by Tuesday evening.

Temperatures in storm-stricken parts of the country are expected to stay about 10 to 20 degrees below normal for the rest of the week, the National Weather Service said.

CNN's Ralph Ellis, Holly Yan, Miguel Marquez, Carma Hassan, Sarah Aarthun, Chuck Conder, Shane Deitert, Stephanie Elam, Randi Kaye, Chuck Johnston, Judson Jones and Casey Wian contributed to this report.

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