GAINESVILLE -- In the middle of that first night, Carlos Aguilar trekked through the woods in northwest Gainesville searching for his firstborn.
With a few close friends and family members, a wooden stick, a single flashlight and his unyielding faith, the Miami father of missing teen Christian Aguilar searched among puddles and trees and layers of fallen leaves until just hours before sunrise.
He frantically called out into the night Papi! Papi!
I wasnt even prepared for a search, I just needed to get out there and look for my child, Aguilar, 45, said of the late Friday night search. I just kept hoping I would hear Christians voice. Even his cry, because that would mean he was injured, but alive.
It has been a week since Aguilar received a phone call about the disappearance of his son, an 18-year-old student who had arrived on the University of Florida campus 55 days earlier with dreams of becoming a biomedical engineer.
Now, Aguilar has become the paternal head of a movement to find Christian. He and members of his large, close-knit family originally from Cali, in western Colombia spend the days almost 350 miles from home, held captive by the uncertainty of Christians fate. For the past few days, a county fairground has become the buzzing command center for the case.
The searches continue everyday, groups of strangers and friends and relatives from as far as Simpsonville, S.C., all on a mission to find Christian. By foot, by car, in the air and on mounted horses, police have led teams across 10 square miles, in wooded fields, parking lots, along rural roadways, behind businesses, in alleys.
Carlos Aguilar is no longer participating, now staying at the fairgrounds to be close to police.
So he and family sit under a pitched white tent on the grounds and wait. And pray. And wait.
I have asked the officials if they can provide us a priest who can come see us, said Aguilar, who is Catholic. And I just keep praying to God that Christian is OK and that he is not somewhere suffering.
His wife, Claudia, 41, rarely speaks publicly about the case. She kept busy Thursday handing out more fliers. When she allowed herself to sit for the moment, the words trickled out slowly.
I am holding on, just trying to be strong for my family, she whispered before retuning to the task.
Christian Aguilar was last seen Sept. 20 with Pedro Bravo, a close friend and former Doral Academy Preparatory School classmate who attends nearby Sante Fe College. Bravo was arrested Monday, charged with depriving a crime victim of medical treatment. He told police the two had fought and he left Aguilar bloody and barely breathing. He is in the Alachua County Jail, held on a $100,000 bond.
As the first week stretches into the second, Carlos Aguilars life has fallen into a grim routine: restless nights, followed by morning searches, endless media interviews, and hours of emptiness in between.
I dont really know the words to describe this nightmare. Its a tragedy. A sad story, he says, clutching the beaded rosary given to him by a stranger several days ago.
Aguilar came to the United States when he was 19 years old. Like his son, he too dreamed of attending college. He wanted to become a journalist, but without money he abandoned those plans, finding odd work at hotels in Miami. He saved his money and soon sent for his wife, whom he had known since they were children living in the same Cali neighborhood. He later became a property manager and Claudia works at a freight company. They live in a three-bedroom townhouse in West Miami-Dade.