GRANTSBURG, WIS. - Just hours before authorities and family members were to make a gut-wrenching decision Sunday night about whether to scale down a search for a 25-year-old autistic man who disappeared from a western Wisconsin camp more than a week ago, they got astounding news.
Two St. Paul firefighters had found Keith Kennedy, severely dehydrated and covered with sores and ticks, lying near a creek in a wooded area roughly a mile west of Trade Lake Camp, said Burnett County Sheriff Dean Roland. The area was being searched for the fourth time when Kennedy was found.
"It was an unbelievable shock," said his mother, Linda Kennedy, who was at the camp Sunday with Keith's dad, Bruce, and other family members. "I now believe in miracles. I really do."
This morning, Kennedy was in the intensive care unit at the University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview. He is in stable condition and improving, a hospital spokeswoman said.Dr. Timothy Whelan said, "It's amazing. He's a very lucky man."
Over the seven days he had been missing, Kennedy had not any food or much if anything to drink. His body temperature was about 80 degrees and he was suffering from hypothermia. Doctors are now monitoring his kidneys to see how much damage they may have suffered.Kennedy was found by Jim Cotroneo and Gary Ruiz, who were among 16 St. Paul firefighters who joined Sunday's search. They were making one last pass when they spotted Kennedy.
Ruiz said it was nearing 8 p.m. Sunday and his group, part of about 75 firefighters from throughout the Twin Cities area, was about to call it quits. Because so much time had passed since Kennedy's disappearance, they had been treating the operation as a recovery effort rather than a search-and-rescue undertaking, he said.
"We were yelling for the other guys because [the woods were] so thick," he said. "Suddenly we came to a clearing and Jim said, 'He's right here.' I said, 'Who?' and Jim said, 'No, he's right here, the one we're looking for. He's right here.'"
The two looked down to see Kennedy, naked and lying curled in the fetal position. A week's worth of thick stubble darkened his face. Then he moaned. He was alive.
"That was the topper of it all right there," Ruiz said. "We were sent in for a body recovery, and to come across somebody that's still alive after seven days is amazing."
The men quickly clothed Kennedy as others radioed for help and cleared a path. They carried him from the woods to the whoops and high-fives of volunteers and were met by the joyful tears of his mother.
"He's the toughest guy I ever met. To be in those woods for seven days is unbelievable," Ruiz said.
Kennedy was in shock and unable to walk, his parents said. He was airlifted to the University of Minnesota hospital, where in 1995 he received a kidney transplant.
Kennedy, who was to have spent a week at the camp for developmentally disabled adults, had been without anti-rejection medication and antianxiety drugs since he disappeared June 15, and hopes had begun to fade that he would ever be found -- dead or alive.
"We never thought he was in the woods," said Linda Kennedy. "It was hard to see him in the state, but I am just beyond happy. After a whole week of this, I am just completely depleted."
The discovery also elated hundreds of volunteers who had combed through miles of rough terrain in and around the camp in search of Kennedy and well-wishers around the country who had followed the weeklong drama.
"I can tell you, we're totally elated right now. We're just starting to breath again," said Cindi Throngard, a camp spokeswoman.
In stable condition
After doctors gave Kennedy a preliminary exam, his father said he was in stable condition and was expected to recover, though his kidneys might have sustained further damage. "He is very weak, but he'll be OK," Bruce Kennedy said.
Burnett County officials had planned to consult with family members Sunday night about scaling back the search.
"Starting a search is easy; ending it is hard," Burnett County Chief Deputy Don Taylor had said.
More than 70 law officers and 400 volunteers had joined Sunday's search.
Missing for a week
Workers at the camp, which is 7 miles south of Grantsburg, Wis., and 80 miles northeast of the Twin Cities, discovered Kennedy missing about 8 p.m. June 15 and began searching for him within minutes. When they could not find him, they notified the Burnett County sheriff at 8:55 p.m.
Throngard said Kennedy had been led back to his bunkhouse by a counselor before sneaking out while the counselor attended to another camper. "We think he may have snuck out for more popcorn and gotten scared that he might be in trouble, so he took off," she said.
During the search, his parents described him as impatient but always smiling and "living in the moment." They said their son knows hundreds of words but only speaks in one-word sentences and is very susceptible to strangers offering things like candy. He has one brother, Alex, 22.
Kennedy graduated from White Bear Lake High School and lives in a Shoreview group home. He had worked at Midway Training Services in Vadnais Heights, doing jobs such as paper shredding.
Ruiz said that finding Kennedy is the highlight of his seven years of firefighting.
"We went in and we brought somebody back to their family alive," he said. "It doesn't get any better than that."
Watch Keith Kennedy spending Christmas with his parents in 2006 at startribune.com/video