Brother shares missing hiker’s survival story

SAN DIEGO -- A Santee attorney fell 20 feet while hiking in Joshua Tree National Park and then endured five days alone in the desert until he was found Thursday afternoon. Hours after he was rescued, his family is sharing his story of survival.

On his 54th birthday, Paul Hanks decided to hike Maze Loop Trail.

“It’s not an unusual habit to hike on his birthday, and he was hiking alone so he intended on not doing something too strenuous and on trail,” Steven Hanks, Paul's brother, said.

Along the way, he said his brother somehow lost his footing and fell. Paul survived the fall but was so badly injured he could not walk.

“And so it really became a battle of being able to drag himself and pull himself and best he could and crawl,” Steven said.

The man spent the next four nights alone and cold, and at some point, he recalled falling again.

“We believe in the middle of the night. He’s not really sure what happened but he sustained additional, more significant injuries in the second fall,” Steven said.

Somehow, through his pain, hunger and thirst, Paul continued to push forward.

“He obviously had sunk to a number of lows, but he said at times he would somehow find the will to push on, and shout out one more time,” his brother said.

Meanwhile, Paul's family and rescue workers searched with worry but kept holding on to hope that they would find him alive. Then on the fifth day, "some unbelievable miracle" happened, Steven said.

“Just a couple hours of daylight [was] left. He says he tried to cry out in an ever-weakening voice and he thought he heard a response but he wasn’t quite sure because he had been yelling for days and hearing his own voice echo back to him. He called out again and he said this time he heard a different voice and he couldn’t believe what was happening and soon, what he describes as three angels from the National Park Service were upon him,” Steven said.

It was a surreal moment for both Paul and his family.

“You would think something like that would be a confetti-like final four, celebration-type feeling, but it was actually the opposite. The tears just flowed from everyone and it was something I’ve never experienced before,” Steven said.

It has been an experience that has undoubtedly brought the family even closer together.

Paul is now in the hospital but is expected to make a full recovery. He is not speaking publicly yet but wanted his brother to pass his message along.

“He really wanted all of the rescuers and others who were praying for him to know how much he appreciates their thoughts and their efforts,” Steven said. "I’m a stranger to all of them. They don’t know me and yet they came out looking for Paul Hanks. God bless them all."

Paul told his family that to stay alive, he would eat things like cactuses. He was also fortunate that it rained one night.