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How a missing 6-year-old girl survived alone in an Arkansas wilderness for two days

On April 29, 2001, 6-year-old Haley Zega became lost while hiking in Arkansas. She was found safe 52 hours later, on May 1, 2001.

NEWTON COUNTY, ARKANSAS, Ark. — Today, Haley Zega lives a relatively everyday life of a 27-year-old. The Fayetteville native still calls Northwest Arkansas home as she pursues an acting career, works at TheatreSquared, and loves hiking the historic trails of Arkansas. 

Those close to Zega, her family, and even those who lived in the area in 2001 know there is more to the young woman than meets the eye. 

“Let’s start at the very beginning, I guess. A perfect place to start,” said Zega in a 2020 video from her YouTube page

On April 29, 2001, Zega and her grandparents set off to hike in the Upper Buffalo Wilderness of Newton County, Arkansas. The family and some friends ventured out to Hawksbill Crag. The late April weather was mild. Sunny skies and temperatures near 80 degrees – ideal for hiking the scenic trail. 

As the group reached Whitaker Point, Haley could hear a waterfall below the bluff. Eager to see the falls, Haley begged her grandparents to take her closer. However, a quick look and growing tired from the hike led her grandparents to reject the request. 

Zega recalled sitting down where she stood and telling the group that she would stay put until they took her to see the falls. Calling her bluff, her grandparents and the group refused and turned to leave, knowing Haley would quickly give up the objection and follow them back down the trail. 

They were correct, but they quickly found themselves in the middle of a 52-hour-long nightmare. 

As Haley took off after the group, she spied a game trail just off the path. She followed it, thinking it bent around a cluster of trees and would drop her on the trail. Zega followed the game trail but never found her way back to the main trail and became lost. 

“It was like a curtain dropped. I couldn’t see or hear anybody. I was basically instantly lost, and then I stayed lost,” recalled Zega. 

Haley continued to twist her way through the woods, searching for her family, the trail, and any sign she was on the right path, but none of which came. Some have described what happened as divine intervention, a guardian angel, a spirit guide, or even an alien? For Haley, it was Alicia – who she describes as her only imaginary friend who showed up when Haley needed her most. 

“She was with me the whole time, and she was a comforting, positive presence,” said Zega. “She was just there the whole time and kept me focused on my goal.” 

That goal was to get home safely. Zega recalled having a determined attitude that would see her get through, “I got myself into this mess, so there’s no reason why I can’t get myself out of it.” 

The preliminary search for Haley had begun.  

Back in Fayetteville, Haley’s mom, Kelly Syer, attended a film festival on a rare day off that would soon become anything but relaxing. 

“From the back of the room, the announcer got to the microphone and asked me to please come to the back of the room, and it scared me half to death,” said Syer. “I was told by two friends who had come at the request of my parents and the folks that were with them to get me because Haley had gone missing.” 

Before setting off on the nearly two-hour drive to the trailhead, Syer rushed home. She grabbed clothes and Haley’s pillowcase – anything she felt would aid rescue team K-9s in picking up her daughter’s scent. 

On the drive there, Syer says the fear began to sink in. “I was not exactly panicky, but really, really scared. I knew that the trail was along a bluff line that drops a couple of hundred feet down to the Buffalo River and so knowing that, and the treacherousness, I was just scared to death that she had fallen.” 

Haley had not fallen but had somehow navigated down the bluff uninjured and made it to the Buffalo River thanks to the help of her imaginary friend Alicia. 

As the first day turned to night, Zega followed the river and eventually fell asleep atop a rock on the river. The sun came up, and a hungry and thirsty six-year-old once again set off downriver. 

Search and rescue teams fanned out, and helicopters with infrared cameras flew along the river valley, searching for Haley. She told 5NEWS that she remembers seeing and hearing the helicopters and doing everything she could to be seen to no avail. 

Night fell for a second time, and fearing it might rain, Haley found a small cave to spend her second night alone in the wilderness. 

Temperatures fell into the 40s that night, and Syer remembers stepping into the cabin's bathroom that became home during the ordeal and opening the window to feel the cool air, thinking about how it must feel for her daughter. 

May 1 arrived with Haley still missing. Syer, search and rescue teams, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and Colleen Nick, the founder of the Morgan Nick Foundation, had amassed one of the largest search and rescue groups in Arkansas history with over 1,000 volunteers. 

However, as time wore on, their search efforts began to change. 

“We were basically thinking she had been abducted at this point because there was no trace of her and so we had sort of changed the direction of the search,” said Syer. 

Little did she know that Haley had already been found around the same time.  

Two men who lived in the area had approached the search and rescue teams suggesting a place they thought Haley could have wandered to. Search crews dismissed the idea, but that would not deter the men.  

Familiar with the area and terrain, William Jeff Villines and Lyttle James set off with two mules and packed down into the valley, where they eventually found Haley curled in a ball near the banks of the Buffalo River. 

The men offered Haley a Diet Coke and chocolate pudding as they got her situated on a mule and began their ascent back out of the valley and to a nearby road. 

“I hate Diet Coke, and I didn’t like Diet Coke then, but it was like mana from Heaven,” said Zega. 

After a few hours, the three made it back to the road and were able to contact crews to get an ambulance to their location as medical professionals began to assess Haley. 

Back at the cabin, Syer recalls seeing former Washington County Sheriff Steve Whitmill pull down the long driveway. Anxiously awaiting any news, Syer and others stood out on the porch, ready to hear what Whitmill would tell them. 

“He gets out of the vehicle and we’re just standing there, just staring,” said Syer. “He takes a few steps, he’s got a really serious look on his face, and then he said, ‘I’ve got a little girl who wants to see her momma.’” 

Syer ran inside to get Haley’s favorite blanket before getting in Sheriff Whitmill’s vehicle as they set off to reunite mother and daughter. All along the way, Syer says she and Sheriff Whitmill were shouting out to search and rescue crews that Haley was found and safe – hearing the message echoed down the line as the news spread. 

As they arrived at the ambulance where Haley was, Syer was thrilled to see her little girl. 

“They opened the doors, and I just basically crawled on top of the gurney and was just like hovering over her. She was so tired and exhausted and didn’t have a lot to say, but she was just so happy,” said Syer. 

After 52 long hours, Haley Zega was safe and once again with her family. At six years old, she had defied all odds and survived alone, without food, water, or shelter.  

Today, Haley still hikes the trail at least once a year, and any chance she gets, she is excited to show the waterfall named after her to any hiking partner. 

Haley was safe and unharmed. The family is grateful the outcome was not what it easily could have been. They don’t let the experience define who they are but rather use it as a way to teach others to be safe. 

Syer urges anyone who hikes with children to bring whistles and dress in bright clothes. Both are great tools to be seen and heard if anyone is separated. 

Haley can be reached on her social media pages by following her on Instagram or YouTube

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