By Elisha Fieldstadt, NBC News
A couple and four children who vanished in sub-zero weather in the Nevada mountains were found safe — “four miles from civilization” — and revealed that they had heated rocks in a fire to survive.
The six were found in fairly good shape on Tuesday after crews spent two nights searching for them, Pershing County police dispatcher Leslie Steward said.
“It’s a miracle. It really is,” Pershing County Sheriff Richard Machado told reporters.
James Glanton, 34, and Christina McIntee, 25, their two children, ages 3 and 4, and a 10-year-old niece and 4-year-old nephew were found in a spot on the mountain range without much cellphone reception, Steward said. The volunteer rescuer who found them had to drive elsewhere to alert the sheriff’s office of the discovery, she said.
Glanton’s ingenuity is being hailed as the difference between life and death. According to Chris Montes, the rescuer who first spotted the vehicle, Glanton built a fire so that he could heat rocks and bring them into the Jeep to keep the family warm.
They used a spare tire as a container for a fire made from brush and wood found in the area.
The family’s ordeal began after they failed to return Sunday from a trip to play in the snow near their hometown of Lovelock, in Nevada’s high desert, about 100 miles northeast of Reno.
Temperatures fell to 21 below zero on the mountain range Sunday night, and were well below zero again Monday night into Tuesday, according to authorities.
The Pershing County sheriff’s office got word shortly before 11 a.m. (2 p.m. ET) that the family’s car had been found, Steward said. The silver Jeep had rolled and was found on its roof, with the family inside, “down off a little slope,” she said.
The Jeep had been seen Sunday “doing wheelies or doughnuts” at a mining camp in Seven Troughs, Pershing dispatch supervisor Sheila Reitz said Monday.
Officials said the couple had not taken food or water with them on the outing.
According to The Associated Press, Montes first saw what looked to be children’s footprints in the snow before spotting tire tracks leading into a remote canyon but not back out.
The Reno Gazette-Journal newspaper reported that Montes and another searcher, Salvador Paredes, hiked to the spot. Paredes went to find cellphone service while Montes approached Glanton. Glanton was startled at first, Montes told the newspaper.
“And he reached out and caught me, and he probably thought I was his wife first,” he said. “He looked up and saw my face, and it surprised him a little bit.”
“I think everybody was thinking the worst for a little bit,” said Montes, a longtime friend of Glanton’s who hunts in the area.
U.S. Civil Air Patrol and a search-and-rescue team started looking for the couple and children when they were reported missing on Monday.
Nevada wing Civil Air Patrol Col. Timothy F. Hahn said that the family was found “four miles from civilization,” and that they survived because they did not attempt to trek that distance on foot.
“They stayed with the vehicle. Otherwise, there would have been at least one recovery involved instead of a save,” Hahn said.
Hahn said the search team focused on areas without cellphone reception because the last indication of the family’s cellphone activity was early Sunday night.
“Search and rescue will always be a matter of elimination — where are they not,” he said.
The couple and children, Evan Glanton, Chloe Glanton, Shelby Fitzpatrick and Tate McIntee, were taken to a hospital.
Pershing County General Hospital CEO Patricia Bianchi said that they had not suffered frostbite but were experiencing “some exposure issues and dehydration.”
“I’m relieved that God answered our prayers,” Shelby’s cousin David Mosier told NBC affiliate KRNV. “They just told me that they found them and that’s all I wanted to hear.”
The Seven Troughs area is named after a series of seven parallel canyons below Seven Trough Peak — elevation 7,474 feet — in the Kamma Mountains stretching north across the Pershing-Humboldt county line. It's about 20 miles southeast of Black Rock Desert, where the annual Burning Man counterculture festival is held. The Associated Press contributed to this report.