Dave Churchill, a retired firefighter, has had many close calls in his life.
But one miraculous event affected him more than anything he’d ever experienced.
On March 24, 2004, Churchill, a Boulder Creek resident, heard that 3-year-old Aiden Burke had disappeared from his home in Boulder Creek the night before and was still missing.
It was his day off as a battalion chief for the San Jose Fire Department, and Churchill joined a massive search-and-rescue effort with teams from five counties, including hundreds of volunteers, search dogs, helicopters and even FBI agents.
“Twenty-one-hours after the boy’s disappearance, a storm set in. I knew that Aiden probably couldn’t survive another night in the woods,” Churchill said. “I was exhausted, and volunteers had already left. I had to make a choice — either head back or keep going. I thought about my own kids and decided to persist.”
Out of desperation, Churchill stopped and prayed a simple prayer. Almost immediately, he felt a power surge and suddenly knew where to look. He felt guided to change direction and hiked up a steep ravine that had already been searched.
Hearing a faint cry, he saw a small boy sitting barefoot on the ground, almost camouflaged by wet leaves. Aiden, who had become separated from his dog and siblings while searching for banana slugs, was too cold and tired to respond.
“It was like divine intervention,” Churchill said. “Nothing in my life compared to that moment.”
And finding Aiden was just the beginning of several miracles that occurred in Churchill’s life and in the lives of many others involved. Not only was the rescue of this 3-year-old boy truly amazing, the life of the rescuer was forever changed.
It’s been nine years since that harrowing event. Churchill has shared his miraculous experience with the Associated Press, on television and in a syndicated magazine. He has spoken to national organizations and in Mexico about his newfound faith. Despite being called a hero, Churchill claims that he was just doing his job and continues to give God the credit.
He has kept in close touch with the Burke family over the years. Besides getting together locally, the two families have taken regular camping trips together at Pismo Beach.
“Not only was the community outreach amazing, with hundreds of volunteers passing out some 5,000 fliers, but there were a lot of people praying,” said Aiden’s mom, Shonti Burke. “When I reached the ambulance where Dave and Aiden were waiting, it was like total elation, relief and one of the best days of my life all rolled into one.”
According to Burke, Aiden recalls little about that day. He does remember feeling abandoned and thinking he’d have to spend the rest of his life in the woods. Aiden often referred to his ordeal as his “Forever Walk,” because he didn’t think anyone would find him.
“When Aiden started Waldorf School in Santa Cruz, the teachers were very gentle and mindful of him,” Burke said. “This really helped in the healing process. He loved to take weekly hikes with his class, but on the second anniversary of his rescue, Aiden refused to participate. Thanks to Dave and the community reaching out to him, he’s become a really strong kid.
“It’s one of the most powerful stories in my life,” she added. “We’re just so grateful to Dave, for bringing Aiden back alive.”
Today, Aiden is a seventh-grader at the Nature Academy in the San Lorenzo Valley, a charter school that offers a variety of academic programs, in addition to an array of nature-based activities. He’s an outdoorsy kid, Burke said, despite what happened nine years ago.
Churchill, 53, reflects back on the rescue as the most humbling experience in his life. He’s still amazed that his prayer was answered and that he was the one who found Aiden.
“I think of this as a series of miracles rather than just one miraculous event,” Churchill said. “It has given me a new purpose to reshape my life around helping and serving others.
“I often wonder who rescued whom. Sure, I helped save Aiden’s life. But he helped rescue me, too. Becoming close to the Burke family and watching Aiden grow into a young man is like watching a miracle of God unfold.”Sandi Olson of Scotts Valley is a writer, speaker and teacher. She writes about interesting people in Scotts Valley and the San Lorenzo Valley. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.