Search and rescue teams scoured the rough and hilly terrain of the Naugatuck State Forest for six days, hoping against hope to find a middle-aged man reported missing last week after his truck was found unattended near the High Rock Shooting Association deep in the woods. Many rescuers would later admit they thought their mission was a recovery; they had little hope that a man could survive a full week in such rough conditions.
Thankfully, they were proven wrong. Around noon on Thursday, Richard Roncarti seemingly appeared out of nowhere.
The 50-year-old Waterbury man was spotted by a Metro North worker as he hobbled along train tracks near the Naugatuck River on the Beacon Falls/Naugatuck line. It was exactly seven days since he was last seen at his mother's house; he didn't say where he was going and he never returned.
When he was found on Thursday, he was in pretty rough shape - black and blues all over, a possible broken pelvis and leg - and he was disoriented. Otherwise, he was OK and was later treated at Waterbury Hospital for non-life-threatening injuries.
"I'm glad he's alive and able to be reuinited with his family," said Jeremy Rodorigo, spokesman for Beacon (Falls) Hose Co. No. 1. He said Roncarti is expected to make a full recovery.
Roncarti didn't say much about his experience when he came out of the woods; rescuers were more interested in getting him medical attention than learning his story. Among the first things he asked was what day it was. When told it was Thursday, his first response, according to firefighters, was one of shock: "I've been out here for a full week?"
Roncarti, who was wearing jeans and a T-shirt when he was located, said he went on a hike in the woods and must have taken a nasty fall. He hasn't said much yet about how he survived, whether he had food or water or how he got around in the woods. Rodorigo said he believes Roncarti crawled on his hands and knees a lot since his pelvis appeared in bad shape.
"He's lucky the weather didn't get too cold," Rodorigo said. "It rained a lot one night, but other than that, the weather wasn't too, too bad."
Before Thursday, many thought Roncarti may have committed suicide. He was described by family and friends as having been depressed recently. That, coupled with the fact he was missing in woods for days, led people to assume suicide was a strong possibility.
However, a state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection rescuer kept saying he had a good feeling they would find him, and other rescuers tried to keep that same hope, said Mike Pratt, chief of Beacon Hose Co. No 1.
"The guy said he's been doing this for a while and that he couldn't explain it, but he just had a good feeling we'd find him," he said.
Naugatuck Fire Chief Ken Hanks described the area where Roncarti was found as a very steap terrain that has about 100 foot drop offs in some places. The hills are so steep that people need to climb on their hands and knees to get up them, Hanks said.
There are also a lot of loose rocks that one could slip on. Hanks said a state police officer who was with a search dog said he's been at the job for 10 years and that this area was the worst terrain he had seen.
Hanks said there are many unanswered questions.
"Was he camping in the woods? Did he get hung up on something and free himself? Or was he walking around for days in the woods?" Hanks said. "The fact that someone survived seven days in the woods, especially in that area with the rain we had (Wednesday), is a pretty amazing survival story."
The DEEP had been investigating Roncarti's disappearance for a week. Local firefighters from Naugatuck, Oxford, Beacon Falls, Seymour and possibly other departments, as well as Waterbury police, helped with the search.
A spokesman for the DEEP was not immediately available for comment on Thursday. Like many, Rodorigo is extremely curious about what the last week was like for Roncarti.
"I don't know yet how he did it, but I can't wait to talk to him about it," Rodorigo said.