The group had been missing in the Blackwater River State Forest since about 2 p.m. Sunday. They were found unharmed, though tired and hungry.

BAKER — A woman and four children were found unharmed nearly 24 hours after being reported missing in the Blackwater River State Forest.


They were spotted around 11:30 a.m. Monday by a Bay County Sheriff's Office helicopter, which was assisting in the search. The helicopter crew then directed Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office deputies to the group.

They were found not far from where they were last seen.

The woman, Marcella Dustin Black, and the children were swimming in the Blackwater River near Sherman Kennedy Road, according to preliminary reports. Three of the children were hers, while the fourth, an 11-year-old, was a friend.

Black told authorities they got lost in the woods and it started to get dark, according to a press release from the OCSO.

Black's boyfriend, who had been with the group at one point, reported them missing around 8 p.m. Sunday.

He said they had gotten in a "slight argument" and she took the kids for a walk, according to the call history report. He said he'd been looking for them since about 2:15 p.m. and that he'd yelled and honked, trying to locate them.

The official search started about 10:30 p.m, according to Capt. Larry Ward with the OCSO. He said between 15 and 18 people searched through the night, with more arriving to help early Monday morning.

"The sergeant called me last night at 10:30, and I've been praying since," he said after the group was found. "It's a wonderful outcome."

Authorities initially found Black's car and eventually their shoes, but no sign of the group. Helicopters, drones and K9s from a half dozen area agencies assisted in the search.

The group was recovered just before noon Monday. They were all in their swim suits, and the children were barefoot. They were hungry and thirsty but none required medical treatment, according to Michele Nicholson with the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office.

The 11-year-old told her parents that Black built a fire overnight to keep them warm and that none of them slept. She said Black threw her purse into the fire to keep it burning longer, according to preliminary reports.

The search was complicated by spotty cell reception in the area. Officials set up a command post, but moved it at one point in the morning to better receive communications.

Black had a cellphone with her, but it died.

Emily and Chris Maloy, the 11 year-old's aunt and uncle, were among those who gathered near Kennedy Bridge to wait for news. At one point, they offered a $10,000 reward for the children's safe return.

Early Monday afternoon, Chris described his feelings as a combination of relief and excitement.

"It was a good feeling to see her returned safely."

Staff photographer Devon Ravine contributed to this story.


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