Local Local hero: Logan’s Eric Gilbreath rescues lost Alabama toddler | CullmanSense

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Local hero: Logan’s Eric Gilbreath rescues lost Alabama toddler

The photo Eric Gilbreath took of himself and 3-year-old Serenity Dawn Sanders after he found the missing toddler in the woods early Friday morning / Courtesy Eric Gilbreath

COLLINSVILLE, Ala. - It was the middle of the night last night, just an hour past what would have been called ‘the witching hour’ just the night before. The phone rang, startling Eric Daniel Gilbreath out of a sound sleep.

It was unusual for his phone to ring at that time of night. When he went to bed there was nothing more pressing on his mind than delivering a load of wood to a customer the next morning. Now what? It couldn’t be anything good.

As is usually the case with 1 a.m. phone calls, it wasn’t …

The friend on the other end of the line was calling to let Eric know that his son’s little 3-year-old sister, Serenity Dawn Sanders, was missing in the woods just outside Collinsville, Alabama. Near Ft. Payne, the area where the child lives with her parents is adjacent to approximately 100 acres of deeply wooded forest, often used for deer hunting. Not a great place for a 3-year-old in the middle of the night.

Eric didn’t waste any time wondering what he should do. He jumped up, dressed and then realized that his truck was on its last legs; the tires were bald and he feared that it wouldn’t make it on the two-hour drive. People hadn’t been buying much wood until this week, and he wasn’t sure he even had enough money on him for gas. He called a couple of friends, asking to borrow a vehicle to help with the rescue.  Both friends needed their cars to get to work this morning, but one of them did offer Eric a hundred dollars to get gas and a good spare tire in an emergency, and that was all he needed to be on his way.

Everything was running through the 37-year–old Logan resident’s head. It was dark. When he hit Albertville he ran into rain. The baby had been missing since dusk. There were predators in those woods…coyotes and bobcats for sure, not much telling what else. A child could fall into a ravine, or a creek. It seemed grim; still, he stopped to get gas and batteries for his flashlight and continued toward what might be a nightmare scene.

He was also worried about his son, Eric, Jr. who loves his little sister. “I just knew one thing for sure,” said Gilbreath this morning in an exclusive interview with The Cullman Tribune. “I knew that I couldn’t sit here in Cullman, knowing that my son’s little sister was out there, alone in those woods.”

It took him almost two hours to get there, he estimates his arrival at about 3:30 a.m. “There were several rescue people there, deputies and police, but they had been out searching for hours and had just about decided to quit until daylight,” said Gilbreath. “I couldn’t wait; I just went off into the woods and started calling her name.”

Gilbreath is an experienced deer hunter. He treated this just as he would have had it been a wounded deer – by tracking the top of the ridge first, then the middle, and finally, the bottom. Eventually, in spite of using his cell phone to keep his location as accurate as possible, he became lost in the dark himself.

His thoughts went back over what he knew of the baby’s final moments at home that evening. It was about six o’clock when her mother ducked into the house to check on supper. It only took a few seconds.  Serenity was entertained by a new puppy, just a few feet from the porch.

When her mom came back outside, there was no sign of the puppy, or the baby. She looked around the yard, sure that her little girl was close by, but after a few minutes, she began to panic. It was approximately six o’clock on a slightly windy, November day. Her baby only had on play clothes and was barefoot. She couldn’t have gone far. Could she?

Continuing to call her name, the young mother began circling the house, calling out her little girl’s name over and over.

By the time help arrived, she was frantic.

A little more than nine hours later, as Gilbreath made his way into the woods, he was almost afraid to think of what he might find. “I was afraid that the puppy would bark and attract a coyote and that it would hurt the baby,” he said.

He called her name frequently. He called back to the house and had people hit the sirens on the rescue vehicles to help him keep his bearings in the dense woods.

The hours wore on, with no sound to indicate that the little girl heard his calls. No barking puppy, nothing…

Gilbreath was getting tired, but said that he was determined to comb every inch of woods until he found her. He kept sweeping his flashlight over the dense underbrush, hoping to see her peaking back at him through a shrub or from behind a fallen limb.

Gilbreath, a self-employed (Eric’s Tree Work and Firewood) wood cutter who also does tree work, is accustomed to walking around in the woods. He’s also been known to hunt almost all day long, but this was different. He was emotionally drained from the stress of pushing himself to find her before daylight. Experience with deer told him that darkness was on his side. “As long as it’s dark, the tendency would be to sit down or lay down, but my worst fear was that when daylight broke, she would begin to move around, making it harder to find her.”

About 6:45 a.m., he spotted movement. It was the puppy.

Almost afraid to hope for the best, he walked toward the little black dog. Coming around the tree where the puppy stood, he saw what he’d been hoping to see. A dirty, smiling little face looking up into the beam of his flashlight. “Hi, Eric!” she said, as if it were nothing out of the ordinary for them to be meeting up in the woods in the middle of the night.

“Hi, Serenity!” he said, emotionally. She reached up for him and he lifted her gently into the cradle of his arm. Together, they headed for her home. The rescue vehicles sounded their sirens to guide Gilbreath and the toddler safely back out of the woods.

Gilbreath called ahead immediately. “I’ve got her!” he said to Serenity’s mom by phone. “She’s scratched up, but she’s fine.” 

Afterward, he estimated that Serenity had somehow wandered about 600 yards away from her house. She’d been following the puppy, who mysteriously disappeared when Gilbreath picked Serenity up from her perch beneath the tree. It has yet to show up again.

“You would never believe that she could have gotten that far, barefoot, in those woods,” Gilbreath said, shaking his head in amazement.

She had some scratches, and that’s mostly what she chattered about on the way out of the woods, but she never cried, nor did she show any fear at having been lost.

When the two walked out of the woods, Gilbreath, sweating, legs sore and hurting, was weary to the bone, and Serenity, soiled, dirty and surprised at all the hoopla going on around her, they were met with rejoicing by her parents, family, friends and rescue workers.

“There were a lot of tears, I even cried, and I don’t cry much, but these were happy tears,” said Gilbreath. So far, Serenity hasn’t shed a tear. She is under observation in a local hospital, but is expected to be discharged shortly.

This could have been a much different kind of story. But this one has a happy ending, and for that, everyone involved, including a huge Facebook following, and the staff of The Cullman Tribune, are thankful.

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  • Eric Gilbreath
    3-year-old Serenity Dawn Sanders Friday after her rescue