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Wednesday, Jun 19, 2019
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'We found her, you guys. We did it.' Hiker Amanda Eller turns up alive after 2-week search.

Those close to Amanda Eller knew if anyone could be mentally and physically strong enough to survive 16 days in a forest on Maui island, it was their friend.

When St. Petersburg resident Shanna Olenik heard she went missing May 8, it was like a punch to the gut. But she never gave up hope that Eller, who lived in the Tampa Bay area for four years, was alive. She told anyone who would listen that her friend would make it. Eller, she said, is a fighter.

"She's not somebody who is going to lay down and give up, that's for damn sure," Olenik said. "I told them, 'If she's out there, she's going to make it. It's going to happen.' She's an amazing person."

That faith, and the faith of hundreds others who joined the search, paid off when Eller was found Friday by a helicopter team scouring the Makawao Forest Reserve.

"She got lost and was stuck and slightly injured in the forest - way way out, somewhere way far above Twin Falls," read a post announcing her discovery on the FindAmanda Facebook page.

Javier Cantellops, Chris Berquist and Troy Helmers were flying over the area and saw Eller, who also spotted them and waived the helicopter down, the Facebook post said. Eller was in a creek bed, down a deep ravine with waterfalls on either side.

"There were times of total fear and loss and wanting to give up, and it did come down to life and death and I had to choose - and I chose life," she said Saturday in a Facebook video from her hospital bed. "I wasn't going to take the easy way out, even though it mean more suffering and pain for myself."

Eller had intended to go for a three-mile hike around 10:30 a.m., but got turned around and ended up hiking until midnight that first day trying to find her car, she told the New York Times. She fractured her leg and tore the meniscus in her knee after falling off a 20-foot cliff. Her shoes were lost in a flash flood.

She told the Times that she covered herself with ferns and leaves at night, or slept in the mud. She lived on various plants, wild strawberry guavas and moths that landed on her body.

"I can't thank everyone out there enough for all your support, all your dedication, all of your donations," Cantellops said in one of the several videos he posted to Facebook after finding Eller. "We never gave up. . We found her, you guys. We did it."

Hundreds had joined the search after Eller, a 35-year-old a physical therapist from the Maui town of Haiki, went missing. Her white Toyota RAV4 was found in the forest parking lot with her phone and wallet inside.

Olenik knew Eller when she lived in Tampa Bay before moving to Hawaii in 2015. She worked as a physical therapist at U.S. HealthWorks for a couple years before taking a job at Bayfront Health in St. Petersburg.

The two met at U.S. HealthWorks, but their bond quickly grew beyond that. It was impossible not to be drawn to Eller, Olenik said.

She described her as a warm, adventurous woman who is strong in both mind and body. Eller loved to be outdoors, including hiking, scuba diving and running, and wasn't afraid to go out on her own if others couldn't join.

"She is one of those people who had an amazing group of friends, but had no qualms about doing things independently," Olenik said. "She has that, 'This is what I want to do, and I'm going to do it' personality."

In addition to her love of nature, Eller is known among friends for her spirituality. Olenik said Saturday she had not had the chance to speak with her friend, but said she believes that is what kept Eller going through the long days and nights in the jungle.

"I can't imagine what went through her head, psychologically," Olenik said. "But the ability to meditate, to stay mentally strong, I'm sure when you have that side of you, that's how you get through."

In the Facebook video, Eller said the ordeal had taken her on "a spiritual journey," and she expressed deep gratitude for the relatives, friends and strangers who came together to help find her.

"It just warms my heart," she said through tears. "This was all about us coming together for a greater purpose of community and love and appreciation for life."

Olenik said her friend always enjoyed nature and living a healthy lifestyle, but those elements of Eller's life grew tenfold after moving to Hawaii.

"The spirit of the island is what drew her there," Olenik said. "She was always one of those people, but when she got there, that really blossomed."

Eller's disappearance and the arduous search that followed drew national attention as teams scoured the area. More than 800 people donated to a GoFundMe account. Volunteers hiked, dived, rappelled and flew all over the forest reserve in hopes of finding Eller. The search page detailed every element the teams used to try to find the missing woman: drones, free divers, search dogs, horse teams, dirt bikes and all sorts of other methods.

"I feel as if all my training and experience was all designed for this incident," Cantellops wrote on Facebook hours before he found Eller. "May this be the final weekend of our search."

Cantellops set out on a helicopter search with Helmers and Berquist Friday. The camp that morning was filled with volunteers, a team from the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources and rescue dogs. Before the search teams left, Berquist helped train Eller's mom with more skills to search for her daughter.

"I was giving the mother, Julia, rappel and ascending lessons so she could join the groups going deeper into the bush to find her baby girl," Berquist wrote on Facebook.

Hours later, the helicopter found Eller in the creek bed, "alive and well(ish)." A video Haynes took at the hospital shows Cantellops and Helmers with Eller's father, discussing the call where he learned they found his daughter.

"That was unexpected," John Eller said. "I was bawling like a baby."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

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