Antonio Sena was 3,000 feet in the air, 242 kilometres from the nearest town, with nothing but the rainforest stretching around him in all directions, when his plane’s engine stopped cold.
It was supposed to be a four-day trip, ferrying 600 litres of diesel fuel from the town of Alenquer to a gold mine called California, tucked away in the Maicuru reserve. The spot was so isolated that Antonio needed a practice run the day before to locate the airstrip.
Flying for them is technically legal, but their mining operations are not.
With little repercussion from the Brazilian government, the garimpeiros destroy an area equivalent to 10,000 soccer pitches every year, a sizable puncture to the earth’s lungs. The mercury used to separate gold seeps into rivers and food chains, a poison that last for years.
And then there’s the risk.
In a decade as a pilot, Antonio had navigated dust storms in Chad and downpours in Brazil, but he’d never said yes to the miners. He’d heard too many stories like that of Clinger Borges do Valé, who walked away from 11 garimpeiro flights, only to see three of his brothers lost to the same business.
But the pandemic closed Antonio’s restaurant and reduced commercial flying hours. For 10 hours of work, he could make enough to pay some bills, roughly $BRL 3,000 ($750).
Now, Antonio was not flying but gliding, hearing the rush of wind where the whirr of an engine should be. The gauges showed no fuel flowing.
He took a deep breath, called mayday on his radio and tried twice to revive the small aircraft.
Then he began looking for the safest place to crash-land in the densest jungle on earth.
Emergency landings were a mandatory flight school topic
“He’s always been very adventurous,” said Antonio’s sister, Mariana. “It was common to have him in trouble when he was a kid — a broken arm from falling off the neighbour’s roof, climbing up a tree, bike accidents.
“As the oldest, it always pissed me off. I wanted to control him, to protect him.”
As an adult, he’d spend his weekends outdoors — playing soccer, wakeboarding or camping with his younger brother, Thiago.
The decision to become a pilot didn’t come as a surprise to either of his siblings. They sold a chunk of land to help pay for his license. Mariana gave him free room and board during his studies.
She’d walk by his desk sometimes and overhear him studying up on black boxes or jungle survival skills. Those moments made her nervous and only intensified as his career took off.
In 2015, he performed a successful emergency landing with 24 passengers on board following an engine failure.
Scanning the horizon, Antonio spotted palm trees
A small opening in the canopy revealed a patch of palm trees. The slender giants normally live near water. They’re also somewhat soft, or at least as supple as a tree can be.
As the ground toward him, the first tree hit the belly of the plane with a thud. Then came the second. By the third, the cockpit was overcome by noise and confusion.
When Antonio opened his eyes, he was pinned between his seat and the instrument panel, with bits of cargo debris lying everywhere. The smell of diesel and aviation fuel filled his lungs, and Antonio realised he was drenched in flammable liquid.
Grabbing his backpack and gathering what he could see, he pushed himself through the gap where the windshield had been, scrambling over the front of the wreckage.
The sounds of explosions trailed him as he hurried up a nearby hill, where he paused to catch his breath and take proper inventory.
Four cans of soft drink
Three bottles of water
One cell phone, with no signal but a decent battery life
One bag of bread, with 12 rolls
One pack of trash bags
One change of clothes
Four big cuts, plus various scrapes and bruises
Zero injuries of the life-threatening variety, and this, Antonio realised, was a miracle
Staying alive would need to be a miracle, too. It would take more than a shelter of palm fronds, a fire with damp wood and a rudimentary spear to hold across his chest while he slept — but these are the things he was able to add to his survival kit on that first night.
He photographed them with his cell phone in an act of optimism. Maybe he’d get to show them around one day.
The odds of recovery were low from the start
Flights over the Amazon go missing so frequently that the public follows the search like sport.
Crews from the Brazilian Air Force fly in zig-zags along the intended route, looking for dead spots and missing trees — a plane-sized hole in 470 million hectares of jungle.
They give it five days. It’s extremely rare they actually find someone.
Thiago got the first call hours after Antonio was supposed to arrive at the airstrip. It was 8:30 pm, and he was putting his daughter to sleep.
He tried to ease Mariana into the news slowly but she wanted the full picture.
“I just kept asking questions,” she said. “I hadn’t realised that he was flying again, especially not this kind of flight. I realised I’d been too into my life here.”
Instincts run deep, and Mariana slipped back into big-sister mode. It took her minutes to arrive at what would become the family’s guiding motto.
“If he never came back, we won’t know what happened.”
The Air Force search and rescue crews set up base in the city closest to the crash, Santarem. It required a flight, a boat, rough roads and more than seven hours of travel, but two days later — which happened to be Antonio’s birthday — both siblings were there among the tents, helicopters, small planes and specialised search crews.
They left behind their families and jobs without saying when they’d be back.
Staying put was the pilot’s plan A
Antonio returned to the charred wreckage the following day to find it yielded no more useful objects.
But they still contained the best chance of rescue — proximity to a stretch of open sky in a jungle where trees can stretch as high as 50 metres.
It was here that the trained outdoorsman began his real jungle education, using the daylight to prepare for the night.
A nearby stream required a short walk because he never slept too close to water. He understood that alligators and anacondas hang out there, too, looking for their own sustenance.
More than once he caught the lingering scent of old blood— Jaguars.
At night, he’d curl up in his shelter and sleep an hour or two at a time, unable to turn down the volume on a menacing symphony of bumps in the night.
The rainforest is always in motion. Antonio noticed the window to the sky above him growing smaller and smaller as the palm trees, supple and soft, slid back into their upright positions.
The hole was nearly closed when, five days later, Antonio heard the motor of the search and rescue plane growing louder and louder. Soon it was right over his head.
Shouting, jumping, waving, he watched it pass by.
Then he stood listening as the engine receded into the distance.
False alarms were the only clues for Mariana and Thiago
“There’s really nothing you can do with hands and knives,” Mariana said. “We had to wait. We had to form other strategies.”
The owners of the mine were nowhere to be found. The owner of the plane was responding to calls but nothing he said helped narrow the search.
What the siblings did have were false alarms and high suspense.
If the Air Force search planes spy anything, they alert a helicopter, which goes in for a closer look. Twice the thunder of chopper blades filled the siblings with hope.
Twice they were disappointed.
Once, they’d learn later, the Air Force pilots had spotted a bit of white in the never-ending green. What they assumed was an airplane’s wing was actually the foam of a river rapid, accumulating in Amazon-sized proportions.
The Air Force extended their search twice at the siblings’ frantic begging. But eight days after Antonio’s disappearance, they said there was no justification for the cost of continuing the search.
They packed up and left.
The fifth day brought an act of inspired desperation
When the search plane didn’t return, Antonio gathered his belongings and took off south, in the direction of the airport he had flown from in Alenquer.
But by sunset, he returned to his crash site shelter. Defeated by the density of the jungle, dejected and dispirited, he grappled with the odds of death for the first time since his crash.
What he needed most was not a clear direction but the ability to be seen. He began a conversation with God for the first time since childhood.
Just let me see my family again, he said. Please let me see my family again.
Antonio pulled up the aeronautical maps on his cell phone, which offered little in the way of ground information, but did show him three airstrips to the east, six nautical miles.
He had no way of knowing whether they were abandoned or active, but they were a promise of human activity and navigable using the sun.
Eight days after his crash, buoyed by the thought of God on his side, he set out into the jungle.
From morning light until noon, he trudged towards the sun — or what he could see of the sun behind the rain clouds. He’d slash away vines and branches with a pocketknife.
He dodged branches thrown at him by territorial spider monkeys. He stooped to refill his plastic bottles with whatever running water he could find on the way. He adopted a routine.
From noon until 3pm, he searched for a safe spot to build shelter, usually on the top of a hill, far from water. From 3 to 5, he built shelter. From 5 to 6, he prepared a fire.
Then he did it again the next day, and the next. His wristwatch became as essential to survival as his will to keep moving.
‘We never had a moment to break down and cry’
Even once the Air Force left and the fire crews left and Santarem started to shrink, it never occurred to Mariana and Thiago to leave.
“We always said we just had to find something. It didn’t matter if he was alive or dead. We couldn’t live with the doubt,” Thiago said.
Mariana began posting videos to update family and soon enough the whole country was tuning in. Some of Antonio’s friends created an online fundraiser. They raised more than $BRL150,000 ($36,500). They offered a $BRL10,000 ($2,400) reward for information leading to his rescue.
They funded out-of-state volunteers and hired private planes to approach the mine from other directions.
Volunteers drove their own motorbikes and cars along Alenquer’s farming roads, wrecking their tires and asking for nothing in return. It rained every day, sometimes for 10 hours on end, sometimes so hard that the planes couldn’t fly.
But they kept going.
“We never had a moment to break down and cry,” Mariana said.
“Thiago had his quiet moments and I had mine. But we just never felt like we had something to cry for.
There were some days when the spiritual arms outnumbered the physical ones. Messages poured in with offers of prayers or with claims that Antonio had appeared in dreams with directions.
In a country with the second-highest COVID-19 casualty count, Antonio’s survival felt as conceivable as anyone’s. Somehow, a plane crash felt more comprehensible than a pandemic.
Antonio slowly withered, losing strength by the day
After a month of searching for civilization, Antonio could barely find sustenance. He shed 25 kilos and his strength was evaporating.
He stumbled across cocoa a few times. He found the big blue eggs of a bird known locally as Nambu-soju. He regularly feasted on the pink-shelled fruit of the Breu Branco tree after observing the monkeys do the same.
But none of it was enough to satisfy him. His stomach cramped at night and he started to lose feelings in his hands and legs. If he stopped to pick something off the ground, his vision would grow dark and fuzzy.
He woke on day 36 and told God he couldn’t go on any longer. He was ready to give in.
Crossing a small river, drenched, exhausted and behind schedule for building camp, his eye caught a white object some 70 meters away. It was a colour made only by men.
He doubted his own perception even as he approached. Sure enough, there it was: a plastic tarp, a few tools and a bucket containing hundreds of Brazilian nut shells.
Antonio moved slow, knowing full well that, this deep in the Amazon, sighting a human is alarmingly rare. He didn’t speak until he was three metres away.
“And I just said, ‘Hello. Good afternoon. My name is Antonio. I’m a pilot and my plane crashed like 30 days ago,” he recounted to the ABC.
“He looked me up and down — I was this burly guy with ripped clothes — and he said: ‘Okay, what do you want me to do?'”
Identifying Antonio came down to a dog’s name
Mariana and Thiago were preparing to leave for a different vantage point when they received a call from their mother saying she’d been in touch with a woman who found Antonio.
She passed along the number, but Thiago and Mariana braced for disappointment. They’d received these types of calls before.
Communication was difficult. The siblings called the daughter of the scavengers, who called the scavengers over the radio. The two parties were connected via the daughter’s speaker phone, but the signal was weak.
The nut collector clearly identified Antonio’s full name and birthdate, but the siblings wanted proof in the form no one would think to research. They asked for the name of Thiago’s dog.
Faintly, Antonio’s voice came through on the end of the line. “Gancho,” he said — Portuguese for ‘hook,’ like ‘captain hook’.
Thiago threw his phone on the ground and began shouting in the middle of the town square. Mariana was more measured, unable to believe it until she could see him in the flesh.
Antonio took tiny bites of crackers, sips of hot milk and spoons full of salt — the mineral his body most craved. He graduated too quickly to fish, rice and beans, resulting in a night of pain before the helicopter finally came to pick him.
When Antonio landed on cement for the first time in 38 days, the press, cameras and medical staff saw a man with bushy hair and tattered clothing, but remarkably few bruises and a noticeably strong smile.
All Antonio saw was his siblings. He walked straight into their arms.
Wrapped in an embrace, tears streaming down his face, he whispered, again and again: “I did this for you. I survived for you.”
There’s only one word that comes close to capturing how it felt on a personal level, Antonio says. In English, it translates roughly to “thrilled,” but that doesn’t do it justice.
The word in Portuguese is ’emocional’.
The siblings’ reunion has become a national symbol
“I hadn’t realised the size of the accomplishment until I saw the commotion there at the airport,” Antonio said.
“We are living in these times where you only get bad news, especially here in Brazil. When my story finished like that, with a happy ending, people were so moved.”
Even now that he’s back to sleeping in a bed, Antonio gets daily messages from strangers who say his story has renewed their faith or helped them cope.
His survival is a parable of resilience, resonating globally in the face of a pandemic.
But it’s also become a call to protect the rainforest, an argument against illegal gold-mining and even a conversation starter on the ethics of nut scavenging.
Brazil’s civil aviation authorities are still investigating, but there are challenges to clarity.
The owner of the plane has died from COVID-19, and there’s not much physical evidence of the crash left to examine. Antonio suspects the quality of the fuel may have been the issue.
For him and his siblings, it’s all a bit beside the point. When they try to articulate what it all means, they rest on the same thing that kept them going in the first place: family.
“I love my brothers so, so much. When I first got the message he was missing, all I felt was regret for being apart for so long,” Mariana said.
“It took a high price. We had the most incredible experience of our lives.