“They found footprints and then the shoes,” field organiser Peter Campbell from Bush Search and Rescue Victoria said on Thursday. “Some footprints were pointing in a certain direction in soft earth and then the shoes gave us the direction of travel.”
Will was “perhaps inadvertently” leaving his rescuers clues, he said.
“Once they found the shoes we thought, ‘He’s not going to go far without shoes’,” Mr Campbell said. “When we find a clue like that, that means we had reasonably high level of confidence he was in the vicinity.”
Teams of searchers were diverted to the area. As they made their way there, a call came through at 11.55am from experienced bushwalker Ben Gibbs. He had found the boy and requested helicopters leave the airspace as the noise was alarming him.
Mr Gibbs spoke calmly to Will about Diesel, a character from his favourite program Thomas the Tank Engine. He gave him chocolate, his jacket and his socks, and was able to return the teen into the waiting arms of his parents.
“I just think we are all greatly appreciative he was able to be there,” Mr Campbell said. “At the end of the second day, we were getting more concerned about [Will’s] welfare so we were very hopeful we would find him on that day and we did.”
Will’s mother Penny Callaghan on Thursday thanked search crews. She said her son had eaten four large serves of McDonald’s hot chips and some chicken nuggets and had gotten a good night’s sleep.
Will may have a broken foot and could need a cast, and also likely has an insect in his ear, she said.
“This is a massive ordeal for him, but for him it was probably just an adventure as well,” Ms Callaghan said.
The teen, who is non-verbal, doesn’t like to be touched and communicates by tapping his chest.
“He obviously can’t tell me what has happened … But it was quite amazing that under pressure he can find ways to communicate and he has often surprised me that way with his ability to let me know when he is struggling…
“He has demonstrated what an amazing person he is,” Ms Callaghan said. “What probably surprised me about him is he stayed in the area – he was off the track but didn’t go too far. He was waiting to be rescued and I want to give him a million hugs but he won’t like that. I managed steal a kiss or two.”
Ms Callaghan said a special thank you to Mr Gibbs.
“I can’t wait to meet him, he clearly did all the right stuff, what an amazing guy,” she said. “I would love to give him a hug and I’m incredibly thankful.”
The search for Will, one of the biggest in Victoria’s history, included more than 450 volunteer and professional searchers on foot, horseback and motorbikes. It involved about 200 SES volunteers and staff from more than 25 units, from Craigieburn to Moorabbin.
It required specialist equipment including marquees and lighting trailers, communications equipment and satellite phones, to be hauled up the mountain.
The theme tune of Thomas the Tank Engine was played through the loudspeakers of SES and police vehicles and locals were encouraged to cook onion and bacon on their barbecues to entice the hungry teen – just some of the many more unusual tactics searchers employed.
“It’s not usually the things we have done, but it was a good opportunity to learn a little bit more,” said Jodie Griffin, the SES regional commander for the search.
“Generally searchers are calling out for people, for example, but this is an opportunity to see the diversity of the population, and see the different techniques and learn new ones for the future.”
The SES are involved in about two searches a week in metro Melbourne, but this was “certainly the biggest search in a couple of years and one of the most high profile searches”, she said.
It’s still unclear how William managed to emerge from his ordeal relatively unscathed despite the cold and lack of warm clothing, Mr Campbell said.
“It is remarkable [he survived] considering he didn’t have a tent or much in the way of warm clothing, so it is surprising he was in such good shape.
“It was a pleasant surprise for everybody. The advice is he had kept moving, and by doing that kept himself warm, and he is in good shape. If he stopped moving and tried to huddle down he would have got cold.”
Acting Inspector Christine Lalor, who led the search effort, said it was “hard to know” if Will would have survived another night in the bush.
“Obviously as time goes on, the risk increases but Penny and myself and the team were all quite optimistic we should find him and for some reason, whether it was wishful thinking, I just had a feeling we were going to find him that day,” she said.
The officer of 30 years said telling Ms Callaghan they had found her son was a career highlight.
“I kept going, ‘Are we sure it’s him? Are we sure it’s him? Can we tell Penny and the family?’ And letting them know was probably one of my career highlights. It was so exciting to deliver that news,” she said.
“It’s a great news story. It’s given everyone a little boost, it’s been a tough three months, from bushfires to COVID.”
Mr Gibbs found Will about 20 minutes from a single walking track, not far from the summit.
He found Will, standing in the thick undergrowth, barefoot, with his hands over his ears to block the noise of a helicopter searching above.
“He was really angelic, just standing there,” Mr Gibbs said.
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Simone is a crime reporter for The Age. Most recently she covered breaking news for The Age, and before that for The Australian in Melbourne.