Monday, January 07, 2008

In A Crisis

This was written before my friend was found and is simply my attempt to remember the outpouring of public support as well as the strangeness a tragedy like this can bring out.

We spent Thursday on the side of the mountain my friend was hiking when she disappeared. We arrived at 6am in 10ยบ weather and watched the bizarre circus unfold. I won't hash out the details and I'm not writing this to talk further about my own distress. It's just strange and fascinating how people respond and I have been making notes about it to try to remember everything. How crises bring out the best and worst in people. How much more people care about strangers than you often realize. How much more complicated an effort of this nature is than I ever expected.

There must have been close to 100 volunteers Thursday. Friends of hers, family members, local hikers who know the trails, vacationing hard-core hikers, people with search-and-rescue experience, gawkers, and people who simply wanted their face on the news (seriously, some people just seemed to be hanging out behind whoever was being interviewed. People walking by cannot help it, but the guy standing two feet behind the interviewee and just gazing off as if he didn't notice the cameras? Irritating.).

It was a panorama of personalities and reactions.

The local tradepost owner was wonderful and supportive. My group were the first volunteers to arrive that day and as they would not allow anyone on the trails until the helicopter had first made the rounds to do an infared search, we would have had nowhere to go for hours if he had not opened his store for us. He was very thoughtful and stopped an interview between one of his employees and a TV news reporter to first ask us if we were alright hearing her talk about our friend. He made a very difficult morning somewhat easier and we were all grateful.

The news crews arrived in droves and I found myself struggling with mixed feelings - it seemed distasteful, watching them decend like vultures. But then, the human interest and the resulting increased coverage is what brought out so many volunteers. The increased media coverage may have helped in aquiring more professional search-and-rescue people as we saw that more and more resources became available as public awareness grew. MOST importantly, more people came forward with information. This information led first to the identification of the man who abducted her and then led directly to his capture. It also led to the correct identification of my friend's dog when she was found. It is impossible to overstate the importance of the media coverage in finding everything we know at present about my friend's abduction. We have to thank the news media for that so I am a little ashamed of my initial discomfort and irritation.

The kind and patient men with the fire department organized the volunteers. The most experienced hikers and people with search-and-rescue training were sent out first. There were SO many of them - local people who knew the trails, vacationing hikers who delayed their plans, people with search-and-rescue training who saw her on the news - who just showed up in their gear, ready to go. People who knew her, experience or no, were held back to be interviewed. Once officials saw just how many people that included, however, they settled for interviewing only a few people to get an overview. This meant that some experienced hikers who were close to her were left cooling their heels because they were delayed too long to be sent with the first wave of search teams. I understand the irritation this created, but the Fire Chief was doing his best to organize an effective search while not stepping on too many toes. He had a difficult task.

A delicate, sweet faced woman with short brown hair and glasses showed up with her two beautiful teenage daughters to help me in the kitchen. They were on their annual vacation and had rented a cabin for the week. They showed up at lunchtime and stayed all day, doing whatever I asked. They didn't make a fuss over their sacrifice - just quietly helped and did it in a efficient manner. They said that they preferred to be helping when people realized they were from out of town and were so selflessly pitching in.

The fire chief's father (a genial older gentleman who insisted on being called "Grandpa") showed up with a huge container of beef and noodle soup and hung around all day, alternating between being reassuring me with kind words and unnerving me by saying that, "If it's your time, it's your time. Even if you're young." He meant well, though. He told me they have to rescue hikers "all the time" and then went on about bringing down a man with a broken leg and how it took four hours to get him off the mountain once they located him and generally he kept me distracted in between food rushes.

One man arrived in the afternoon and stood around for two to three hours, just rambling on about himself to anyone who would listen. He talked about how he's from an affluent neighborhood and none of the teenagers where HE lives would volunteer like this. He talked about how this would be a lesson to his 9 year old daughter. He rambled on and on about how people don't understand what's important and how his kids only value Ambercrombie and Fitch and how what's REALLY important is (expansive hand gesture) "THIS"... He also didn't lift a finger all afternoon.

One woman who actually does know our friend (and probably meant well) kept talking about her loudly IN THE PAST TENSE. She cornered family members and friends. She babbled cheerily all afternoon. All the while slipping into the past tense and then saying, "Oops!" and correcting herself. "Did you know her?" "She was a tough girl! I mean, She IS. I keep doing that! I mean IS." "So, Were you friends with her?" Top volume. All day.

The Fire Station's Chaplain was there non-stop. Not only making himself available to anyone who needed to talk and leading people in prayer, but also helping with the food and just pitching in wherever he was needed. He's a tall man with glasses and a big, bushy moustache (I find facial hair reassuring. Santa. My Dad. My favorite Uncle. Tom Selleck. So many of my favorite men have facial hair). I felt better just having him around.

An thin older woman in a formless grey sweatsuit and a tough looking leather biker jacket signed up to volunteer and then waited in case she was needed. She asked if we were saving food for my friend because she was going to need energy bars when found. I reassured her that certainly the EMT's who were standing by had appropriate supplies at the ready. She asked one of my companions if she and our missing friend had ever talked about girl stuff, "like what you would do if you were stranded in the woods." We puzzled over that for a while, as niether of us recall any "girl talk" conversations with female friends having covered lost-in-woods scenarios.

A couple of sweet teenage boys kept coming up to me and asking if I needed anything and just generally stayed around all day looking for things to do. Opening doors for people. Waiting to see if they were needed. They were quiet, they were respectful, they didn't go near the cameras. They just wanted to help.

My friend's godmother is the family's spokesperson and she was both emotional and firm. She did media interviews, she made announcements and thanked the volunteers, she spoke with such a fervor that I think some part of her hoped to bring our friend back by sheer force of will. She has continued to this this non-stop for days now. I think my friend would be both proud and deeply moved to see how her godmother has handled herself and tried to protect my friend's parents from the media glare.

I think volunteers who were not used may not see that they did something. They made themselves available. They showed up and said, "Here I am. Use me if you are able. I want to help." So many people did. When seven of us left together at 5am, we had no idea what to expect in terms of manpower. We didn't know if we would be a large percentage of the group searching or if there would be huge teams of law enforcement on the ground or WHAT. To watch droves of people arrive as the day went on was so reassuring.

Most of us know nothing about how these things happen. When you want to help, who do you call? Where do you go? Few people who volunteered expected to work with the food or do other tasks. They showed up to search. Much more support is needed than the actual people out looking. None of us understood that organizing volunteers was such an enormous task. Many friends and family members were left waiting, restlessly coming in and out of the building; sitting, standing, hugging, talking, calling people. But nothing to do. The waiting was and is awful. Every person present who knows her was there because they not only wanted to help, but NEEDED to. Looking back now I am kicking myself for not finding a way to draft more people into the kitchen. For their sake. Did it make a difference that I ladled soup all day? Doubtful. But I FELT as if I was doing something and I should have made an effort to help other people who were also struggling with that need.

For all that something like this reminds you how ugly humanity can be, it also brings out the best in people. As I sit watching the news now; waiting for more information, worried by the facts we have learned, my out of practice tongue whispering fervent prayers for a missing friend and her grieving family - there are hundreds of strangers doing much the same thing. Hundreds of strangers who searched the woods in below freezing temperatures or sent food or posted flyers or called about her dog or kept an eye out in their neighborhood for that man or just kept her in their thoughts. Hundreds of strangers who in their own big or little way did whatever they could to help are also watching the news and saying quiet prayers and becoming very familiar with the face of a pretty woman whom I very much wish they could all someday meet.


  1. Thank you for that. It made me cry, but in a good way. I've been focusing so much on the loss of our friend, I lost sight of how remarkable the volunteer effort meant.

    I will miss her, but I know she won't be forgotten.

  2. Marisa -- I'm so so sorry about your friend. I just don't have the words. You're in my thoughts.

  3. Here in Israel, people can be really rude and self-centered, to the point where it's almost taken for granted as a collective character trait. That being said, there's no one else I'd rather be around in times of crisis. I've always been awed by the responses here to terror attacks, to soldiers killed in action, etc.

    It is always humbling, I think, to witness the goodness in people in times of crisis. Despite all the ugliness in the world, the goodness gives you hope that not all is lost.

  4. It really does, Liza. And I know you have more experience seeing that in action than perhaps I ever will. I had never seen anything like it up close - so many strangers coming together because they just wanted to help someone they never even knew.