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How a 7-year-old survived Zoar Valley tragedy that killed his parents

Seven-year-old Jacob Green was hiking alongside his parents, William and Amanda Green of South Buffalo, in the Zoar Valley on Aug. 20 when they ended up at the edge of a cliff more than 100 feet high. His mother carried Jacob's little brother, Alexander, 4.

The trail suddenly disappeared, the boy later told his grandmother.

Jacob's parents began to slip down the cliff and grabbed on to trees. The bark gave way on the tree that William Green was holding onto, and he fell.

Amanda Green, still holding Alexander, fell, too.

Jacob went toward them and he lost his footing. He grabbed on to branches and hit a tree as he tumbled down, before waking up at the bottom of the gorge. The boy had fractures all over his body. His shoes had fallen off. His parents lay lifeless nearby. His brother was coughing.

The 7-year-old boy did as his parents had taught him to do, said his grandmother, Linda Kornowski. He tried to get help.

More than three months after the tragic accident that left Amanda and Bill Green dead and the brothers injured, the tragic events that took place Aug. 20 are coming to light. Jacob, despite being just 7 years old and afraid of strangers, had the wherewithal to put to action what his parents had taught him about how to handle an emergency.

Amanda and William Green, who died Aug. 20 after falling with their children from a steep cliff at the Zoar Valley Multiple Use Area in southern Erie County. (Provided by Green family)

Based on accounts that Jacob told his grandmother, a report filed by the Erie County Sheriff's Office and court papers filed by the Green family's attorneys, here's how Jacob survived:

The Greens were on the north side of the gorge, in what is known as the Zoar Valley Multiple Use Area, about 33 miles south of Buffalo. It is a state forest, not an official state park. The sheriff's report says the family 's car was found at a lot at one end of a trail.

It's not clear how the Green family ended up so close to the edge of the gorge. Attorney Don Chiari of Chiari Brown, who represents the family, said he's investigating what happened.

"We're not sure if an area collapsed or the trail disappeared," Chiari said.

The sheriff's report does not say how, either.

Jacob told his grandmother, who is now raising him and his brother, that he hit his head on a tree as he fell down the cliff and was unconscious for a few moments.

He suffered fractures to his arm, ankle and pelvis and had a head injury, according to the notice of claim his family filed.

Jacob walked over to where his parents were lying and saw that they had died. His brother was coughing. Alexander had suffered fractures to his skull, hip, pelvis and arm, and he had a lacerated spleen.

Jacob found his parents' cellphone on the ground and tried to dial 911, but the phone was covered with mud and wasn't functioning, he told his grandmother.

He set off on foot to get help, though he had no shoes on.

Investigators said the boy headed southeast along Cattaraugus Creek through the remote 3,014-acre wilderness area.

An aerial view shows the scale of the Zoar Valley. (News file photo)

A hiker on the gorge floor spotted three figures on the ground, according to the sheriff's report. The hiker later told sheriff's detectives that he approached them cautiously and saw that one was a child and his legs were moving.

The hiker called 911 at 12:45 p.m., and a dispatcher said a helicopter would be on its way.

About a half-hour later, first aid personnel landed at the gorge floor, and Alexander was airlifted to Women and Children's Hospital of Buffalo.

Erie County Sheriff's Detective Shaun Hediger described in his report that he was flown in by helicopter to the gorge floor and met with Deputy Sean Young. Hediger took photos, measured the debris field and collected clothing and footwear that were scattered around them.

As they were going through the items, the first responders found a pair of child's shoes that looked too large for the 4-year-old.

They realized there was another child – Jacob — and that he was missing.

A massive search began. About 100 people – deputies, firefighters, EMTs and volunteers – fanned out across the top and bottom of the gorge.

Deputy Young and Detective Hediger remained at the foot of the cliff, maintaining the scene, the sheriff's report said.

In the meantime, Jacob had walked into an area with tall grass and began making a fort using sticks and other material he found on the ground, he told his grandmother.

"He said it was starting to get dark," Kornowski said.

He said he went in and out of the grass, trying to see if help was coming.

Just after 6 p.m., the detective and the deputy saw Jacob emerge from the tree line about 50 yards away, the sheriff's report said.

Jacob ran away, he told his grandmother. He was terrified of strangers. But Hediger and Young yelled to him and explained who they were and that they were there to help him.

"He came back," Kornowski said Jacob told her.

The deputies checked Jacob for injuries, gave him a bottle of water "and assured him that we were going to get him to safety," Hediger wrote in the report.

The Sheriff's Office helicopter, Air 1, landed on the gorge floor, and Young carried Jacob into the helicopter.

Jacob spent a week and a half at the hospital. Alexander, who was more seriously injured, was there for about a month. Now, they are living with their paternal grandmother, Linda Kornowski.

"They are my miracle boys," Kornowski said.

Couple who died at Zoar Valley loved nature, spending time with sons

Jacob is a smart and mature child, Kornowski said, and her son taught him a lot about the outdoors. The family often went on hiking and camping trips all over Western New York, and her son taught the boys about safety and what to do in an emergency.

"He taught them all that stuff," she said.

In those final terrible moments, Kornowski believes her son and daughter-in-law did everything they could to save their sons' lives.

"Mom and Dad saved them," she said.

Kornowski is proud of Jacob for being so strong during such a traumatic event.

"He's a brave little boy," she said.

She hopes his story will show other children faced with emergencies "that they can be brave and do stuff to try to get help."

The sheriff's deputies and other personnel involved in the search have kept close tabs on the boys, visiting them often. And the family is grateful for everything the first responders did to find and save the boys, as well as for their continuing kindness.

In November, Amanda Green's sister, Nicole Miller, and Kornowski filed notices of claim against New York State and its Department of Environmental Conservation, the first step in a lawsuit. The claims accuse the state and DEC of negligence for failing to maintain the property in a reasonably safe condition, warn of danger, "adequately demarcate and/or restrict access to dangerous and prohibited areas of the property, adequately marking areas safe for hiking and warning the public to hazardous conditions in the forest."

Zoar Valley is open the public, Chiari said.

"There are marked hiking trails," he said. "If you do that, you create a duty that has to be maintained."

Chiari and fellow attorney Mike Scinta are collecting information from all of the agencies involved in the search and rescue and have hired a private investigator to help determine what happened.

But what he has learned so far has amazed the veteran attorney.

"I've been doing this 30 years, and I've never heard a more tragic story," Chiari said. "When I heard the story the first time sitting there with the client, I couldn't believe it, for this boy to be able to get up and do that."

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