'I was bawling like a baby,' says firefighter who heard cries of Kentucky toddler missing for 3 days in the woods

PHOTO: Missing toddler Kenneth Howard was found on May 15, 2019, after hed been missing for more than three days, authorities said.
PlayRitter Mortimer/Mortimer Media, Salyersville Independent
WATCH Rescuers describe how they found missing toddler

The Kentucky search and rescue crews who participated in the search for a toddler who had wandered away from his home described the "godsend" that led them to find him alive in the mountainous terrain days after he went missing.

Kenneth Howard, who is nearly 2 years old, went missing from his home in Salyersville Sunday around 7:30 p.m. after his father, who was in the yard with him, turned around and noticed he was gone, Capt. Carter Conley of the Magoffin County Rescue Squad told ABC News.

Searchers were conducting a grid search Wednesday afternoon within a quarter-mile radius of the home when someone heard a cry, Prestonsburg Fire Department Chief Michael Brown said during a press conference Thursday.

"We got quiet, started calling his name," Brown said. "As we called his name over and over he sporadically would speak up and give us a shout."

PHOTO: Missing toddler Kenneth Howard was found alive, May 15, 2019, after hed been missing for more than three days, authorities said. Magoffin County Sheriff Department
Missing toddler Kenneth Howard was found alive, May 15, 2019, after he'd been missing for more than three days, authorities said.

Prestonsburg firefighter Michael Tussey, who was the first to hear Kenneth's cries, said he saw the toddler's blond head pop up as the crew was wading through the overgrown grass and canopied trees.

"I was bawling like a baby," Tussey said, adding that they didn't expect to find Kenneth alive.

The toddler was found about 1,800 feet from his home, Kentucky State Trooper William Petry told ABC News. Rescuers were shocked that he was able to get that far, considering how mountainous the area is, John May, chief of the Wolfe County Search and Rescue, said during the press conference. Some of the areas they were searching in were at 1,400 feet elevation, he added.

The first thing Kenneth asked for was something to drink, and the toddler "reached straight out" for the Gatorade that was offered to him, Tussey said.

“I’ve never seen a kid drink like that," one rescuer said.

After he was satiated, Kenneth then began to ask for his mom and dad, Tussey added.

Finding the boy may have been a serendipitous miracle, officials said. The night before, rescue crews had stopped their search at a deer stand, and on Wednesday, Tussey was instructed to search near the ridge where the deer stand was located, he said.

A "gut feeling" led Tussey to a hill, and once he began climbing down, he heard Kenneth's cries, he said. After giving him some water, the rescuers carried him out of the woods in a backpack they cut holes into, Tussey said.

After medics started an IV to treat Kenneth's dehydration, he was "calm, cool and collected," Conley told reporters. His mother was then called to the scene, and she "basically climbed on top of him on the gurney" to hug and kiss him, said Chris Hecker, the Kentucky Emergency Management director for the area. He was then airlifted to a local hospital, Hecker said.

Some of the crews had already searched the area where Kenneth was found, but he may have been covered by the dense vegetation, Hecker said, adding that it was "godsend" that he cried out when he did.

Kenneth also had to endure the elements during the 67 hours he was in the woods, officials said. It was 38 degrees and raining on the first night, and the wildlife such as coyotes and bobcats could have been attracted by his cries, May said. Fresh bear tracks had even been spotted during the search, May added, and one of the members of the team found more than 50 ticks on his body after the first night of searching, Conley said.

PHOTO: Missing toddler Kenneth Howard was found on May 15, 2019, after hed been missing for more than three days, authorities said.
Ritter Mortimer/Mortimer Media, Salyersville Independent
Missing toddler Kenneth Howard was found on May 15, 2019, after he'd been missing for more than three days, authorities said.

Fourteen different departments, dozens of volunteers and at least five dogs participated in the search, Conley said.

Kenneth was doing "exceptionally" well as of Thursday morning and was eating solid food, Conley said. He is expected to make a full recovery.

The toddler had been known to run down the driveway in the past, Conley said. Authorities are continuing to investigate how Kenneth became lost, but they currently do not suspect that any criminal activity occurred, Petry said.

ABC News' Rachel Katz and TJ Holmes contributed to this report.