Doc: Stranded woman was close to dying

Pictured: Rita and Albert Chretien

May 9, 2011 2:56:30 PM PDT
A Canadian woman who survived seven-weeks of near starvation in the remote Nevada mountains remained in fair condition Monday in Idaho, hospital officials in Twin Falls said.

Hunters found Rita Chretien, 56, of Penticton, British Columbia, on Friday, after they spotted her van mired in mud on a national forest road in Elko County, Nev., near the Idaho border.

Searchers are looking for her husband, Albert Chretien, 59, who set off on foot March 22 to get help.

Alone in the rugged and isolated country, Rita Chretien survived on just water and the snacks they carried for a road trip, but family members and doctors agree that she faced the prospect of death had she not been found.

"We got the biggest miracle we could ever ask for," her son, Raymond Chretien, said Sunday.

He told reporters at St. Luke's Magic Valley Medical Center in Twin Falls, where his mother was being treated, that the family was fortunate to be able to spend Mother's Day with her.

"But there's still one more to come in," he said of the ongoing search for his father.

Doctors said Rita Chretien's fair condition belies the serious straits she was in when the hunters stumbled upon her vehicle.

"She was getting near the end," said Dr. James Westberry. "We are familiar with starvation in our line of work, but this is a once in a lifetime for us. She obviously had the mindset of survival and that must have been something to help her go as long as she did."

Her son said she sensed her ordeal was about to come to an end a day before she was found.

"She got ready on Thursday to be with her Savior or rescued," Raymond Chretien said.

The couple was last seen on a surveillance video on March 19 while stopping for gas in Baker City, Ore., a small ranching town about two hours west of Boise. They own a commercial excavating business and were headed to Las Vegas for a trade show.

After their disappearance, the Chretiens became the subject of a search by Oregon State Police, Royal Canadian Mounted Police and other law enforcement agencies. Vehicles and aircraft covered 3,000 miles of roads, scouring the back roads that crisscross the remote region near the Snake River near where they had last been seen.

The city of Penticton, on the shores of Okanagan and Skaha lakes just north of the Washington border, had set up a fund to aid in the search for the couple.

Numerous tips came in during the week after they went missing, but none indicated the route the couple had taken. The Canadian police major crime unit was involved because of concern the couple was the victim of foul play.

Penticton Mayor Dan Ashton said Rita Chretien's discovery was almost unbelievable.

"If it's not a miracle, it's damn close to a miracle, that she was able to survive for that period of time," Ashton said Monday. "We just hope it will be a similar outcome with Mr. Chretien."

The couple ran into trouble in a remote area in northeastern Nevada as they took a scenic detour on their way south.

Rita Chretien told investigators she last saw her husband when he set off for help on foot with a GPS unit a few days after they got stuck.

Raymond Chretien said that during the intervening seven weeks, his mother got out of the van and walked every day.

"She had books she was reading," he said. "She had time to read some twice."

The Chretiens' ordeal is another reminder of the danger unprepared motorists face when they stray on rarely traveled back roads with the threat of foul weather.

In 2006, TV personality James Kim died of hypothermia after he, his wife and two children became stranded in the remote mountains of Oregon.

Northern Nevada's remote and rugged terrain has made it difficult for crews looking for Albert Chretien. Roads in the area are a "spider web" that can be confusing to navigate, and crews were not sure which direction Albert Chretien headed after leaving his wife.

Rain, snow and high winds forced searchers to end their efforts early Sunday. Poor visibility meant aircraft couldn't be used in the search, and travel was difficult because the roads have been washed out or covered with rock slides.

Elko County Sheriff's Sgt. Kevin McKinney didn't immediately return a phone call on Monday seeking the status of the search. Meanwhile, Westberry said Rita Chretien is on a liquid diet and still very weak but making progress. She reportedly lost 20 to 30 pounds since she was stranded.

Westberry said Rita Chretien ate snacks the couple had with them for the trip, rationing her supply, and that when she first arrived at the hospital, she was calm and able to communicate well.

"My impression was very pleased and happy that she was doing as well as she was," he said. "We're very optimistic that she will have a good recovery. The fact that she was in fairly good baseline health to begin with was in her favor."


Associated Press writer Josh Loftin contributed from Salt Lake City.

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