The stepdad of William Callaghan who was found after disappearing in dense bushland for several days has delivered an incredible recollection of the family’s emotional turmoil during the search.
The 14-year-old autistic boy went missing on Monday afternoon during a walk with family at Mount Disappointment in Victoria’s Great Dividing Range, and was found by volunteer Ben Gibbs on Wednesday.
After receiving the news Will was safe, his stepdad Nathan Ezard got in his car and tracked Will’s mum Penny Callaghan using the Find My Phone app, rushing to collect her and take her back to base camp.
He said the pair were in autopilot in the moments leading up to their reunion with Will, who Mr Gibbs spotted standing in bushland after spending two nights in near freezing temperatures.
“The time up there was excruciating,” Mr Ezard told Nine’s Today program on Friday.
“For all of us who work with Will, who are part of Will's life, one of our biggest fears is that he will go missing on our watch. And it's excruciating.”
“It's any dad's worst fear to lose a child in the bush or whatever like that. To have your kids in harms way is just horrible.”
Incredibly Will was located with minor cuts and grazes, having been transferred to the Royal Children's Hospital before being released on Thursday to spend his first night home in his own bed.
Mr Ezard recalled when Ben Gibbs found the 14-year-old standing in a clearing he said he looked like an angel.
“And that is how Will looks,” a beaming Mr Ezard told the Today Show.
“He is a little angel, he really is sent from heaven. He’s just beautiful.”
The first thing Will did when they got home was “sit down on his swing set and have
a big long swing”, with his mum having to eventually drag him inside out of the cold.
Will being autistic and non-verbal added an extra layer of challenges to the search, which involved hundreds of volunteers, PA systems playing Thomas the Tank Engine, and calls for locals to cook bacon and onions to coax him towards safety.
The mission offered brief insight into the challenges faced daily by the family, which Ms Callaghan addressed on Wednesday when speaking to reporters before Will was found.
Accessing support and funding was not a simple process Ms Callaghan said, which added strain to the already difficult nature of being the parent of a child with autism.
Mr Ezard said raising Will came with “positives and negatives”, but it was a privilege to simply have the opportunity.
“While it's really difficult, it is just such a pleasure to be part of Will's life. So, yes, we struggle but it's more that we struggle for Will. It's just an honour to be part of his existence,” he said.
He thanked everyone who helped in the search, including Mansfield Autism Statewide Services, who spent years working with Will which he said had helped him develop the resilience that was crucial to his survival.
“They have given him a lot more of an ability to communicate with us... we had such an amazing team there to help us look for him and help everybody know how to look for him.”
Mr Ezard said Mr Gibbs was the perfect representation of the volunteers who had showed up to help find Will, telling media on Wednesday he spoke softly to Will about Thomas the Tank Engine.
“The fact that he let you (Mr Gibbs) carry him is a huge thing. Will doesn't like being touched so you obviously made him feel very comfortable and he is just the - Ben is just the picture-perfect person for everyone that was up there,” Mr Ezard said.
Today hosts Karl Stefanovic and Alison Langdon became emotional hearing Mr Ezard speak about Will, praising his role in the family and describing him as a “beautiful man”.
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