A university president from Columbia got more than he bargained for while on a trip to the U.S. after he spent nearly five days lost in the Louisiana Bayou surviving on nothing more than plant stems to eat and his own urine to drink.
Francisco Piedrahita,65, head of Universidad Icesi in Cali, Columbia, was at the Jean Lafitte National Historic Park near New Orleans and was walking along the park's Wood Duck Trail last Saturday to photograph the brightly coloured whistling ducks native to the swampy area when he had become lost.
He roughed it out for the next four days until a local sheriff's office helicopter spotted him.
Francisco Piedrahita, a university professor from Colombia, holds a stuffed male wood duck as his son Esteban looks on at West Jefferson Medical Center in Marrero, La., He was found Wednesday after four days lost in Jean Lafitte National Park
People he had corresponded with by email, told Mr. Piedrahita that the ducks frequented ponds about 200 yards from the end of the trail, but he learned the hard way that they had dried up.
To survive he ate a few plant stems. 'For drink I had to use urine,' Piedrahita said to reporters before he was due to leave the hospital Thursday evening.
A walk in the park 'looked like no risk at all,' He also said, which is why he had chosen to leave his cell phone in a safe at his hotel before venturing to the park.
Piedrahita recounted how he had spent Saturday morning on the 2.5 miles of boardwalk and paved trails on one side of a two-lane highway, had lunch with the cabbie, the went off for the trail on his own.
When he took the dirt trail he figured the fact that it wasn't built up meant there was no need for the boardwalk.
'I never thought of the swamps,'he said.
Francisco Piedrahita's wife Claudia, left, gives him a kiss as he is transferred to a waiting ambulance
Once he discovered that the ponds were dried up, Piedrahita made his way back to the trail, then to where he thought the parking lot was, and then on to traffic he heard on a nearby highway. He used palmetto trees and white-flowered shrubs as markers along the way.
Mr.Piedrahita said he had trouble navigating through the marsh landscape.
'I never thought of the swamps,' he said.
'When it was this deep, it is no problem,' he said, holding his hands about a foot apart. 'But when it is this deep'-his hands closer to two feet apart-'it is a big problem.'
'I could never find my way across what appeared to be the wider part of the swamp,' he said.
Mr.Piedrahita had told the cab driver that he would be back in less than an hour when he headed off on the trail. When two hours had passed, the cabbie flagged down a park ranger.
Francisco Piedrahita is wheeled into West Jefferson Medical Center after being found alive in the 2,000-acres of forest and swampland of Jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Preserve where crews have spent five days searching for him
Both forest and swamp were strewn with dozens if not hundreds of large downed logs, he said. Some were were rotten and he tried walking acorss some while balancing on two sticks.
'Some broke as I walked and I fell in the water,' he said.
Eventually he found a tiny make-shift island made out of 'a cypress log and some higher mud' about 3 yards long. Mr. Piedahita stayed on the speck of dry land until he was rescued.
Park rangers had searched for the university head until midnight on Saturday, Sheriff's deputies joined the search on Sunday. By Tuesday, the number of searchers had grown from 50 to more than 100.
The search party came close to finding Mr. Piedrahita on Sunday morning.
'When the sirens came...it was my best feeling,' he said, 'A half-hour after Help!' a guy answered in Spanish: 'Donde esta usted?'- 'Where are you?' I could just say, 'Here!Here!'
Francisco Piedrahita, 65, rector of Universidad Icesi in Cali, Colombia, and his wife, Claudia, pose for photographers before leaving West Jefferson Medical Center
But time stretched on with no one to his rescue, and Mr. Piedrahita grew afraid.
'Time seems to pass and nothing happens or seems to be happening,' he said, 'I'd see one helicopter here, another there, but nothing else, and always far from me.'
Mr. Piedrahita was tormented by mosquitoes, flies and the muggy south Louisiana Heat along with the roar of traffic he heard 'all day and night' but didn't know how to get to it.
He would walk 'from the tree to the other tree' and back again. he would write little notes to himself. he took a few pictures of his immediate area but limited use of his camera because he was afraid that the battery would run out.
When he was finally found, searchers quickly gathered around. 'you are all for me?' he asked the search party. Mr Piedrahita said he was humbled by the response.
Francisco Piedrahita (center), his son Esteban (left) and Dr. Robert Chugden, head of the emergency department at West Jefferson Medical Center, shake hands at a news conference just before Piedrahita left the hospital
he has made a quick recovery from dehydration, exposure, muscle loss, some gastrointestinal and kidney problems resulting from dehydration and little food,' said his Dr. Robert Chugden who treated the university head.
Mr. Piedrahita plans to return to his native Columbia on Sunday.
Asked if he'll return to the park, he said yes. But will he stay on the trail?
'Yes.And not (go) on that trail unless they guarantee the duck is waiting,' he said.