Horseback rider: Hannah Anderson was in ‘survival mode’

Follow in Hannah Anderson's footsteps 2:14

Backcountry horseback riders saw fear in the eyes of 16-year-old kidnap victim Hannah Anderson when they stumbled across her and murder suspect James Lee DiMaggio in a remote corner of the Idaho wilderness, a chance encounter that may have saved the young girl's life, two of the riders told NBC News.

"The look on... I seen on her face was pretty much fear. I didn't like what I'd seen on his face," rider Mike Young said of the chance encounter that may have saved the young California girl's life.

Mary Young says she saw it, too: "She was in survival mode. She was doing what she was told to do."

The four riders – retired sheriff-turned-rancher Mark John and his wife Christa, along with their friends, the Youngs – recalled that DiMaggio, 40, and Hannah seemed like bumbling suburbanites as they attempted to navigate the treacherous terrain of Idaho's Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, their tent perched on an unprotected ridge.

Joined by NBC News, the intrepid riders – whose tip sparked a dramatic rescue operation in which DiMaggio was shot dead and Hannah was rescued – retraced the 14-mile, five-hour journey to the dirt track where they fatefully crossed paths with the pair on Aug. 7.

The group said they rarely – if ever – run into anyone on their fishing trips to glacier-fed Morehead Lake, which is why they couldn't forget this out-of-place couple.

The biggest tip-off that the two didn't belong there: the house cat that DiMaggio brought along.

Raw video: Hannah Anderson appears at car wash 0:53

Also, Hannah had on tennis shoes and sweats – inadequate hiking gear – and was hauling a brand-new rucksack that the riders estimated to be about 60 pounds.

"That's a hell of a hike with a big rucksack," Mark John said.

"It's probably as rough as anything there is in the United States," Mike Young said of the unforgiving landscape. "Every state says they have the steepest mountains, but they haven't been to Idaho."

When he returned from the wilderness the next afternoon, Mark John turned on the TV to learn that DiMaggio — a longtime friend of the Anderson family — was suspected of killing Hannah's mother and 8-year-old brother, burning down his house, and abducting the teenage Hannah.

Horseback riders who found Hannah retrace their steps 2:41

A call to police then led investigators to DiMaggio's car, covered with brush. Soon after, helicopters spotted the duo's campsite near Morehead Lake. The multi-state search came to a swift end when officers encountered the armed DiMaggio, ultimately shooting him dead.

"DiMaggio had a rifle, fired one round. Lowered the rifle to shoulder height, fired one more round, and was immediately shot by members of the hostage rescue team," San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore told NBC News.

Shot five times, DiMaggio died. Hannah was rescued and reunited with her grieving father, Brett Anderson.

While their call to police may have saved Hannah's life, the foursome downplayed their role in her rescue.

"I don't know if we saved her life," Mark John said. "I know we set the stage for somebody else to save her life."

His wife, Christa, added: "You're right there and she becomes yours. You know, don't you dare hurt her."

NBC New's Tracy Connor contributed to this report.