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Lost in the Amazon: The will to struggle on

Second of two parts: How couple lost in Brazil fought urge to end suffering

Monday, September 02, 2002

By Michael A. Fuoco, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Crystal Ramsey wanted the penknife. Now.

Back on the Pitt campus in Oakland, Crystal Ramsey says of her brush with death in Brazil: "This happening to me was the best gift I have ever been given." (Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette)

It was Friday, the fourth day she and friend Dave Boyer had been lost in the Amazon rain forest. Now, the University of Pittsburgh student wanted to end her suffering from the oppressive heat, relentless mosquitoes and the mental trauma of facing agonizing death in the jungle.

If death was inevitable, why go through another night of torture? Take control. End it now at her own hand, the 23-year-old former Burgettstown resident thought.

Boyer, a North Carolina native and likewise 23, wasn't so sure.

"It's a new day," he said. "It's light out now. We have to at least give it a shot until night."

She listened, knowing at least while there was light, there was hope.

At one point, she looked up to see a gigantic white bird in a tree. It was beautiful, but in this setting it was upsetting. She was jealous. The bird could fly out of here. She couldn't.

Any hope she had left diminished as the day wore on. Ramsey thought Boyer was leading them in circles.

"Don't you see that every direction we walk in is the same? We don't ever get anywhere," she said, crying.

They talked about all the people they loved, the ferrets they had bought together when they were more than just friends, their regrets. They were preparing themselves to die.

Increasingly, it became not a question of whether it was going to happen but how. Starvation? Dehydration? Exhaustion? Suicide?

One of those likely would be the end to what the couple had originally planned to be just a three-hour hike from their hostel. They had unknowingly walked far beyond the marked path and become hopelessly lost.

They struggled on. They couldn't stop for long during the day because the ants would attack and the heat seemed even more oppressive.

Ramsey didn't consider herself an extremely religious person, but she believed in a higher power. She felt that whatever happened in life was supposed to happen.

Now, she lashed out at God. "Why? Why? What do you want me to do? Why didn't you just kill us?" she screamed to the heavens.

Ramsey vacillated between a survival instinct and a suicide wish. It helped to know that two options were available --that she could let go for good if she wanted to, that she could try to live if she wanted to.

About 2 p.m. they decided to build a teepee-like shelter from fronds. As soon as they finished, it was invaded by yellow jackets, mosquitoes and other insects they couldn't identify. An hour's worth of precious energy had been wasted.

They walked until 5 p.m. and built another one. They tried covering themselves with mud to keep the mosquitoes off. It didn't work.

She asked for the knife several times that day but always something would give her hope--the sound of an engine, Boyer urging her to press on.

That night, Boyer couldn't sleep again -- the fifth night in a row. Ramsey caught a few fitful hours.

At one point, they talked about the things they had left behind at the hostel -- hammocks with mosquito netting, water-purification kits, a stove. Thinking about the faraway comforts made their ordeal worse.


Hunger sets in

Hunger began to overtake Ramsey. She wanted Pizza Hut pizza. She couldn't quit thinking about it.

They split the last of their food, a cereal bar. She asked again for the knife.

"Would you please just give it to me? I don't think I'm strong enough to take this anymore."

Every time, Boyer would say, "We have to try to get through to tonight." Or, "Could you try just for me?"

Sometimes she was in so much pain she would fall and tell Boyer to go on without her.

"Crystal, I'm never going to go. I will never leave, no matter what."

Blisters on both of Ramsey's feet burst, causing so much pain that it felt like wasps were attacking her.

About noon, they came into an unusual opening in the middle of the jungle. The sandy area was about the size of three football fields. It contained small trees, but no overhead foliage obscured the sky. Boyer said he had daydreamed of just such a field, and of a river nearby.

They heard what they thought was a boat motor and ran toward the rumble. But after chasing it for two hours, they realized there was no boat. Boyer suggested they go back to the open field.

They walked for hours without finding it. It was if they again were walking in circles. About 5:30 p.m., however, the sky started to open up a bit.

It was another sandy, open space. They were so excited they ran and jumped into the sand. There were ants, but this species didn't bite. They were only bitten 10 times by mosquitoes that night.

They heard rumbling again and thought it was a generator. They were excited about the promise of tomorrow.

For the first time in five days, Boyer slept.


'There's people'

The next morning, Ramsey was afraid to leave the sandy area, it had been so comfortable. But there was no choice--stay and die or leave and hope to live.

Dave Boyer, second from left, and Crystal Ramsey, fourth from left, returned to the village of Alto Allegro with gifts for those who rescued them from the jungle.

They walked the perimeter, looking for the river in Boyer's daydream, but there was none. Ramsey took a nap. In the sand next to his sleeping friend, Boyer scribbled, "Six days lost," and snapped a photo.

Later, they heard the generator noise again and walked toward it. The noise stopped, and they found nothing. It was about 10 a.m.

"Give me the knife!" Ramsey pleaded.

Boyer talked her into waiting. He now seemed resigned to commit suicide, too. They talked about their lives. They cried.

Ramsey said she wanted to go first. She was insistent.

She asked Boyer to sit down and pray with her.

"Is there anything you want to say?" she asked.

"I have never had faith in anything, but if somehow we get out of this, I'll need to get myself some faith in something out there."

Ramsey prayed: "Give us strength. Help us through this. If this was a lesson I needed to learn, I am learning it, I have learned it. I will do better. I will try to realize what's important and what isn't.

"Thank you for giving us strength. Please give us more. Help us help each other."

At 1:30 p.m, Ramsey said she had finally had it.

"That's it. I can't wait for you anymore. I need to do it now. We're stupid for living right now. We're just going to die here."

For some reason he couldn't explain, Boyer said he needed to be clean before killing himself.

They had been walking on the side of a hill; below, the floor of the jungle was flooded. Walking down the hill, they found that it actually was a fairly deep body of water. Could it lead to a river?

Submerged vegetation with five-inch thorns made the going tough. But Ramsey discovered that her sense of futility had given away to anger. She struggled through the water, the thorns tearing at her clothes, pulling her hair out, cutting her everywhere, but she didn't care.

Now she was fighting to live.

They alternately walked and swam through the flooded jungle for three hours.

About 4:30 p.m., a plane flew over the jungle. They yelled and screamed, but it turned away.

Nevertheless, the encounter gave them hope.

"We are not doing anything tonight. We will build a raft and sleep on this river if we have to," Boyer said.

Night was coming. Boyer, a stronger swimmer, moved from tree to tree, pulling the backstroking Ramsey toward him.

At one tree, Ramsey looked ahead.

Just 10 yards away were two hunters in canoes.

"There's people! Dave, there's people! Tell me it's real! Tell me it's real!" Ramsey screamed through her tears.

One of the hunters pulled Ramsey into his canoe, and the other grabbed Boyer. They spoke only Portuguese, but the couple learned later that the hunters had learned from their radio that two young Americanos were missing.

The men took Ramsey and Boyer to Alto Allegro, a village of about 40 people an hour away. The villagers hung hammocks for them in a common room, gave them new clothes and fruit drinks, and cranked up a television run by a generator. The show was a Portuguese version of funny animal videos. Boyer and Ramsey thought it was hilarious.

A man brought a plate containing 25 rolls. They ate 22 of them and fell asleep. The man returned later with a pot of spaghetti and chicken. Ramsey is a vegetarian, but she ate three plates of it.

Villagers used sterile needles and an antiseptic to remove the dozens of thorns imbedded in their skin. Boyer had one in his head that was 2 1/2 inches long.

The village was 45 kilometers from the hostel where Boyer and Ramsey had begun their hike.

About midnight, police officers came to the village and put them on a speedboat for an hour-long trip on a tributary of the Amazon River. Then they were transferred to a police boat from the city of Maues for a two-hour trip to that town.

On the boat was the hostel owner. She was beside herself with joy that her two guests had survived.

She had a telephone she hooked up to a car battery. Ramsey and Boyer called their parents and learned that the plane they had seen Sunday had been rented by Boyer's father. The U.S. Embassy had alerted him that the couple were missing.

Finally, they were taken to a Maues hospital, where they were treated for about seven hours, then they went to a hotel. Ramsey finally got her pizza, even if it wasn't from Pizza Hut.

Six days later, the following Saturday, they returned to the village of their rescuers, taking with them clothes and candy and volleyballs and soccer balls and other gifts.

The couple returned to the hostel and stayed the five additional weeks they had planned. They went back into the jungle--this time with a guide.


Back home

Today, Ramsey says she is a different person.

 
  Lost in the Amazon, part one:

Beyond the end of the trail

   
 

"I used to never want to get up in the morning. I was happy but didn't have excitement for life. I do now," she said last week on Pitt's campus.

"Every time that I even think about complaining, I don't anymore. This happening to me was the best gift I have ever been given.

"All the people we talked about in there, the people who we loved, all the things we talked about regretting, we can fix them all now. It's so great."

Boyer said he's still trying to understand what motivated him to want to cleanse himself before attempting suicide.

"I'm trying logically to process why that happened, but nothing is coming up to explain that logically, so it must be a spiritual thing," said Boyer, who will graduate from the University of North Carolina, Asheville, in December with a degree in economics.

Ramsey noticed another major change when she returned to Pitt last week for the beginning of the fall term.

An engineering physics major, Ramsey said the course work is so demanding, "I used to let school get to me. It would take over my mind. I was constantly nervous about not getting everything done. Now I'm just there and they pile it on and I'm excited to do it, to learn it.

"And why not? I'm just so happy."


Michael A. Fuoco can be reached at mfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1968.

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