"I've got the boy".
That was the reaction from aerial police after they made the "miracle" discovery of three-year-old Anthony 'AJ' Elfalak, three days after he went missing from his family's Putty property.
A large scale search was triggered after AJ disappeared on Friday afternoon, and it was a police helicopter that made the "miracle" discovery about 450 metres from the family home in an area previously searched several times.
Hunter Valley police commander Superintendent Tracy Chapman said the officers "noticed some movement and that's what drew their attention".
"They came back around and got in and had a closer look and they were able to clearly identify a small boy in a puddle in the creek bed and he was drinking water at the time," she said.
"I think so close to water is potentially what gave him that opportunity to survive."
The State Emergency Service were the first to reach AJ on foot. SES Central Hunter Commander Simon Merrick said the member who got to him first found him nearly in the river bed.
"They put a hand on his shoulder and comforted him," Mr Merrick said. "He actually took a knee on our rescuer's knee.
"[AJ] turned towards him with a massive smile on his face that he will not forget."
NSW Ambulance's Gerry Pyke said AJ was found in "quite remarkable" condition.
"By the time I got to him, the SES had done a wonderful job of winning over his spirits," he said.
"For little AJ, everything was on his side. He persevered, he had a will to survive and he certainly showed that."
After being reunited with his mother Kelly, his father Anthony said he was "just clinging to mum."
"As soon as he heard his mum he opened his eyes and looked at her and fell asleep," Mr Elfalak said.
Apart from a few scratches and some nappy rash, Mr Pyke said they "don't suspect there's anything untowards" in AJ's condition, but that he was taken to Maitland Hospital to check for infections after drinking possibly contaminated water from the creek.
"At the end of the day he was found well and healthy," Mr Pyke said. "Great adulation by not only his mum and dad but also the SES and the police that have put so much work into putting this together to come up with a brilliant result."
After a needed sleep in the back of the ambulance, Mr Pyke said AJ had some well deserved food.
"Once he woke up all he wanted to do was eat," he said. "He got stuck into about three slices of pizza and a banana."
There were tears of joy from family and friends who had suffered through sleepless nights and long days of searching the rough terrain desperately trying to find little AJ.
Mr Elfalak described the discovery as "a miracle".
"I've been in the bush for four days, no sleep," he said. "We didn't stop."
When asked what kept him going, Mr Elfalak replied: "Just finding my son, he's named after me, he's my baby boy".
"I want to thank everyone," Mr Elfalak said.
"I've never seen anything like it. We never gave up hope."
"There's going to be some celebrating tonight."
"Thank you to my friend, my cousin, my sisters, my family. Thank you, everybody and whoever prayed for us."
AJ's aunty Mirolla Sawan said the entire family was "grateful and happy".
"This is a time of reflection," she said. "We're glad he's home.
Great adulation by not only his mum and dad but also the SES and the police that have put so much work into putting this together to come up with a brilliant result.NSW Ambulance's Gerry Pyke
"During a time of split everyone's come together and we can seek solace in that."
Ms Sawan said she was thankful to the emergency services as well as family and friends who had put so much effort into finding AJ. She said at one point she slept on a pool table due to the amount of people in the house who were there to help search.
"They have not stopped," she said. "It's quite remarkable."
The family issued a statement on Monday afternoon thanking everyone involved and requesting privacy at this time.
"Our family is together again," the statement said. "For that we are grateful to everyone who has assisted in any way over the last three days.
"AJ is fine. Hold your kids close.
Anthony and Kelly Elfalak and their four sons moved to the property just months ago as Mr Elfalak's work as a plumber dried up amid the COVID-19 lockdown.
The family initially believed AJ was kidnapped, and after being missing for such a long time, some had begun to think the worst.
"I think like anyone the longer something goes on, I guess the more worried you become that you won't get an outcome such as this," Superintendent Chapman said.
"[We were] really trying to push into areas that we felt there was some chance of finding him alive."
Superintendent Chapman said while police assumptions were that AJ was in the bush for the entire three days, investigations into his disappearance remain ongoing. Police seized a white utility from a property at Bulga on Sunday afternoon, which remains part of their inquiries.
"We've obviously established an investigation in conjunction with our search operation," Superintendent Chapman said.
"We will still be continuing our inquiries to try to understand what's occurred over the past three days."
But all those involved in the search were simply overjoyed AJ was found safe and well.
"It was an emotional moment," Mr Merrick said. "We've got a lot of people that have been out here over the past four days. We've had 385 volunteers on the ground."
"The a feeling of emotion and what comes with finding AJ in the condition that he is has been overwhelming for some of our members."
Superintendent Chapman said the feeling among police was "relief more than anything".
"I just need to express my thanks to all of our partner agencies," she said.
"Everyone who has contributed over the past three days has worked around the clock.
"Most of these people are volunteers.
"Certainly standing here today it's a good news story."
IN THE NEWS:
- Anthony "AJ" Elfalak has been found alive near a creek three days after his disappearance
- NSW records 1281 COVID-19 cases, five deaths
- New COVID-19 exposure site at Belmont vaccination hub, Port Stephens, Thornton
- Hunter miners making big cash profits as prices triple in a year despite China ban and climate concerns
- Be heard on climate: 'We're just ordinary Aussies who have had a gutful'
Our journalists work hard to provide local, up-to-date news to the community. This is how you can continue to access our trusted content: