Officer who identified missing 2-year-old Gabriella: She 'gave me a big hug'

Michigan conservation officer Lt. Brandon Kieft holds 2-year-old Gabriella Vitale while she munches on a cookie and drinks some water after she disappeared for 26 hours in a wooded area of Oscoda County.
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OSCODA COUNTY (WJRT) (7/17/2019) - A Michigan conservation officer shared a tender moment with Gabriella Vitale when he found her Tuesday after she spent more than 24 hours alone in a heavily forested area of Oscoda County.

Lt. Brandon Kieft of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources was at the command post around 11:30 a.m. when someone called to report finding 2-year-old Gabriella.

RELATED: 2-year-old Gabriella Vitale found safe in Oscoda County woods

Kieft found the little girl on the porch of a cabin in the woods off Reber Road about a mile west of M-33 north of Mio. He quickly identified her as Gabriella.

“I asked her if she wanted to go see mommy and she lit up. She came right to me and gave me a big hug,” Kieft said.

One of the bystanders at the cabin drove Kieft and Gabriella back to the command post. He fed her some water and a cookie while waiting for her mother to arrive.

“It was very emotional to see Gabriella reunited with her family. Her mother took her into her arms and collapsed to the floor,” Kieft said.

EMS personnel evaluated Gabriella at the command center and then transported her to a hospital for further evaluation. She had suffered some scrapes and bruises for her ordeal in the woods, but otherwise was in good condition.

Gabriella had been camping in the area with her family since late last week. She walked away and disappeared while they were packing up the campsite around 8:30 a.m. Monday.

A massive air and land search coordinated by the Michigan State Police, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Forest Service and Oscoda County Sheriff's Office lasted more than 24 hours.

Dozens of volunteer searchers from around the state were joined by an MSP helicopter, 10 K-9 teams and 20 conservation officers. The search continued until 2 a.m. Tuesday, stopped due to poor visibility and resumed at 7 a.m.

When Kieft found Gabriella at the cabin, she was wearing only half of her shirt. Her pants and shoes had been lost in the woods.

The DNR says the group of people who found Gabriella was on a retreat. They allowed searchers onto the property Monday evening and continued looking out for anyone wandering through through the night and into Tuesday morning.

“It was great how many people came together to help. Gabriella’s family was there also helping,” Kieft said. “There were several law enforcement agencies involved. We all put in hard work and were very lucky.”