Sunday, September 21, 2014

Searching for Hannah: My Experiences as a Volunteer

Around 1:20 AM on Saturday, September 13th, eighteen year-old Hannah Graham disappeared. Shortly before this, the University of Virginia sophomore was captured by various surveillance cameras as she walked through the Downtown Mall, a pedestrian area near the university which is home to a variety of restaurants, shops, art galleries, and offices. Even at such an early hour, the eight-block strip still had a decent flow of foot traffic. Yet somehow, after sending a text to friends informing them that she was lost, Hannah disappeared without a trace.

Click to Enlarge
Nearly a week after she went missing, volunteers were sought to perform a massive undertaking: to search the entire city of Charlottesville, Virginia for any signs of the missing student in the course of a single weekend. Being only a few hours away from the University of Virginia, my family and I decided to lend our assistance to the effort. After pre-registering on one of the official sites, we drove up to Charlottesville, picked my sister up from the train station, and made our way to the search and rescue command center, which had been set up in the John Paul Jones Arena on the UVA campus. Once there, a bevy of volunteers directed us to the registration area; after providing identification and signing a waiver, we were given wrist bands which we were not allowed to remove and assigned a time to meet on Saturday morning. After this, we were seated within the arena to await the 7:00 PM briefing.

Having arrived early, we watched the seats fill up over the course of several hours. Around 1500 people had preregistered online with several hundred more showing up to register in person. The turnout was so large in fact, that organizers had to forgo the official registration process for a large number of volunteers until after the conference had concluded. For this same reason, the meeting also started a little later than initially planned.

Once it began, various search and rescue officials provided an overview of the operation, advising us of exactly what we would be looking for and giving some detail of what to expect when we showed up in the morning. I was most impressed with Police Chief Tim Longo. Though a very stern and imposing looking man, he was very passionate as he addressed the crowd of volunteers as well as optimistic. He, and the others, repeatedly stressed that the point of the search was to bring Hannah home. He did, however, share some legal information pertinent to what we’d be doing. Some of it was fairly obvious, such as not touching anything we found which may be of evidentiary value. However, we were also advised about private property. Though we couldn’t enter private property without risking anything found there being inadmissible, we were free to look into and even photograph the yards if we were standing on a public street or sidewalk.

After the meeting concluded, the remainder of the volunteers stayed behind to finish registration
At the mission briefing
while we went to find some dinner and check into our hotel. Knowing an arduous day would be before us, we called it a night fairly early, ensuring we would be well-rested for the coming day.

Saturday morning, it was boots on the ground at 9:00 AM. We met back at the arena and had to go through registration again, this time also providing the unique ID number printed on our wristbands as well as our names. Once this was accomplished, we were seated in a staging area within the arena. From there, volunteers with previous search and rescue, first responder, or military experience were identified and separated from the pack, being taken to a separate briefing so they could serve as team leaders. The rest of us were advised that that the searches would be divided into roughly two types of areas: wooded terrain and urban. As my family and I are avid hikers, we volunteered for the heavy terrain regions, reasoning that we would more readily be able to identify things which looked out of place or unusual in a forest setting.

From these two distinct groups, we were further broken down into teams of six to ten individuals. Each team had a team leader, as previously mentioned, as well as a communications officer, who was responsible for keeping in contact with the command center, checking in at predetermined intervals, and reporting anything of interest which was found. Our team consisted of my stepdad, mom, sister, and me, as well as three young men from a nearby town who all serve in the army together.

Once assembled, we went over a map of the area we would be searching, an overview of what type of terrain we could expect, and were advised it would take around four hours to thoroughly search our assigned territory. After the briefing was concluded, our team loaded onto a bus and was driven to our drop point.
Some of the terrain we were searching
Our area consisted of a meandering foot path that was roughly parallel to the Highway 250 Bypass. In places the woods were extremely thick with briars and brambles blocking the way as well as steep inclines to contend with. We’d fanned out through the area, moving slowly, methodically, and literally leaving no stone left unturned. We stooped to peer beneath the underbrush, scattered piles of leaves, and shined our flashlights into drainage culverts which fed into small streams. We searched stone cisterns so old that the forest had nearly overtaken them and walked the perimeter of a stagnant pond. A little ways of from the trail, I came across a tent set up in a small clearing with pieces of duct tape littering the ground. With our team leader, we called out multiple times asking if anyone was in the tent and then advising them that we were opening it up. Inside, there were only some flattened boxes. It looked for all intents and purposes to be the encampment of a homeless person, but pictures were still taken and sent back to the command center just in case. Fanning out again, my sister and mom discovered a pile of bones which were eventually confirmed to be deer but had to be ruled out anyway, since at least five girls have gone missing from this area in the last five years with only one ever actually being recovered. While the rest of the team waited for someone to show up to look at the bones, one of the team members and I set out to follow some tire tracks I’d discovered fairly close to the pond and which looked to be approximately a week old. Though that search proved fruitless, we later learned that divers were going to be dispatched to the pond.

I’d volunteered to be part of this search because I felt for Hannah’s family. They are living through every parent’s worst nightmare and if there was anything I could do to help alleviate even a fraction of that stress and worry, I was all in. What I didn't take into account, however, was the psychological and emotional impact these types of operations have. It didn't take long before it almost began feeling like Hannah was someone I personally knew, a friend of the family or perhaps a cousin whom I hadn’t seen for some time. This emotional connection with a girl I’d never actually met sometimes made the task of searching difficult.

The search organizers and police were all extremely optimistic. The official name of the project was “Bring Hannah Home”, but that was also our stated goal: to find this young woman and bring her back. Hannah, however, had disappeared from an urban area, not while walking along the dirt trail which formed the backbone of our search radius. Though no one came right out and openly said it, I think it was probably in the back of all of our minds: out there in the woods, we weren't searching for a living girl who was being held captive. We were searching for a body. We searched with our noses as well as our eyes. We watched hawks as they flew across the sky to see if they began circling. We tried to remain optimistic. We tried to remain hopeful. But it was hard at times.

Once we’d reached the end of the woods, we crossed the highway and headed back toward the rendezvous point, searching the hillside and berm for anything which may have been tossed from a moving vehicle. Every so often, cars would honk their horns and give us a thumb’s up as they passed and this outpouring of community support is what really choked me up. I’m not really sure why. It was just one of those emotional triggers that appear when you least expect it. But that was when I truly realized exactly how deeply this operation was affecting me.

Once we returned to the command center, our team leaders went to a debriefing while we refilled our backpacks with bottled water and snacks as well as hungrily devouring pizza, all thoughtfully provided by The American Red Cross. We’d been combing the woods for four hours and were required to take a half an hour break before being allowed another assignment. Once that half an hour had passed, however, our team reassembled, had a mini-briefing concerning our new search area and objectives, and then it was boots on the ground again.

This time our search area was more urban. While it did include some wooded plots, we mostly
walked through neighborhoods, checking storm drains, dumpsters, piles of leaves and brush, and even shining our flashlights into the commodes of Porta-potties. In this area, our main goal was to find evidence: Hannah’s clothing, her shoes, her iPhone… anything which would help generate leads for the police. However after nearly another four hours our search was complete and we began walking back to the command center. I found, however, that the search is never really complete. As we walked along the sidewalks, our eyes were still scanning our surroundings. My stepdad still checked rain gutters along the roadway and we veered away from the sidewalks to look through areas of dense vegetation. 

Eventually, though we trudged back onto the UVA campus. With only a couple hours of daylight remaining, no more groups were being sent out, so we checked out with the registration volunteers and found a small, English pub to have a bite of dinner. While smoking in the parking lot, however, I still found myself drawn to the hillsides, my eyes searching the trees and creek below for the metallic sparkle of her shirt, her phone’s pink casing, or her white shoes.

We were all profoundly disappointed. We’d wanted so desperately for Hannah to be found; it didn’t necessarily even have to be our group which found her. At the very least, we wanted something to be found. While we did hear several promising reports come over the radio throughout the search, at the end of the day there was still no trace of Hannah Elizabeth Graham. With heavy hearts and minds, we made the long journey home, physically and emotionally exhausted.

A $50,000 reward is now being offered in hopes of soliciting tips that could lead police to Hannah Graham.
The City of Charlottesville and the University of Virginia are each offering $10,000. In addition, some local residents and businesses have contributed $30,000 to the reward.
If you have information that could help investigators, call the special Hannah Graham tip line at 434-295-3851.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Parkersburg: A Brief Retrospective

It was the year 2000.  The Y2K Bug had come and gone without wrecking the nation’s infrastructure and ushering in the end of days.  Farrell, Devin, and I had just moved back to West Virginia after a miserable winter living in Illinois and we were staying in one half of an old farmhouse my mother was buying which had been converted into a duplex.  We were a twenty minute drive from the nearest paved road and even further from the closest town.  Even that little hamlet, however, had little to offer.  There was a Wal-Mart built upon the grounds where an insane asylum had once stood, a one screen movie theater, Foodland, and a dying sweater factory.  Work was hard to come by without committing yourself to an hour and a half drive to the nearest cities.  Times were good, but lean.  We made do with the little we had, Farrell read books aloud each night in lieu of the family clustering around a television or computer; we hiked through rolling hills and happened upon houses so old and cut off that they were nothing more than rotting boards which had collapsed into overgrown foundations.  Every few nights, the extended family gathered around a bonfire and swapped stories or listened to CDs by Pete Seeger or ones with Native American folktales and lore while the kids chased each other through the darkness.  It was a simple, honest life with the aforementioned lack of employment opportunities being the biggest detractor.

Up to this point in our lives, both Farrell and I had been possessed by gypsy feet.  We tended to never stay in one place for too long, always brimming with excitement to see and experience whatever happened to lie just around the next bend.  However, we’d come to realize that this lifestyle wasn’t exactly fair to our son.  We wanted him to have the chance to grow up and go to school with the same kids every year instead of making new friends on a regular basis;  we wanted more stability and security in our lives for his sake if nothing else. 

I’d been filling out applications and submitting resumes everywhere I could find when I was finally offered a position as a customer service representative at the Coldwater Creek call center/warehouse.  The job was located in Parkersburg, which we knew very little about.  Farrell had gone to a club there with some friends years earlier but that was about the extent of our experience.  We didn’t know anyone there, didn’t have any friends or relatives in the area… but we decided this was the opportunity we’d been waiting for.  When we moved into our first Parkersburg apartment, we took a vow to stay in this area until our son graduated High School, no matter what it took.

It wasn’t always easy to keep that vow.  There were times when our gypsy feet called to us, times when financial strain tempted us to move on to more lucrative pastures;  but we always pressed on, keeping true to our word.  Parkersburg truly became our son’s hometown.  He can’t go anywhere in this city without seeing people he knows and its landmarks brim with memories and experiences.  But something a little unexpected happened along the way.  Not only did it become his hometown, but it became ours as well.  We’d always thought that once he graduated, we’d move on.  Perhaps to the beach.  Perhaps to Texas or Arizona.  But we never did.  There have been great times here and tough times as well… but all in all, Parkersburg has been good to us.  We’ve made friends with some really wonderful people in this area, folks we probably never would have known if not for the pledge we made to one another; we know the streets intimately, the shortcuts, and bus schedules, the yearly festivals, and which hospitals have the shortest ER wait times.  We have a bevy of stories set in this little city, memories which will follow us until the day we die.

Now, fourteen years after making that vow, Farrell and I are preparing to move back to the Charleston area.  She has classes there which require her to drive an hour and a half each way on a daily basis and, after months of being unemployed, I finally snagged a job at a chemical plant in that neck of the woods.  I grew up in the area surrounding Charleston and both Farrell and I spent quite a bit of time there up to our early twenties.  So one would think it would feel like a homecoming of sorts.  But it doesn’t really.  Instead, it feels like we’re leaving home.

True story.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Why We Want an Apocalypse

An essay/excerpt from my current work in progress, "Fuck It, Let's Have an Apocalypse":


People want to know why the fuck we want an apocalypse.  I’ll tell you why.  It’s because we’ve had it up to here with having it up to here, because we trade in the hours of our lives for paychecks that never stretch as far as we need.  Because of this, we prioritize basic necessities and juggle them like ass-clowns in a three ring clusterfuck:  can we put off the electric for another month to make sure that water’s not disconnected first thing Monday morning… and if we pay the water, exactly how much will that leave for food and shelter?  So what’s the solution then?  We delude ourselves into believing we only have to work longer and harder, we drag downtrodden and bedraggled asses home for a few, sparse hours before stumbling out of bed and starting the whole damn farce anew.  We poise ourselves behind desks and counters, behind registers and phones, counting down the minutes and seconds with no true sense of pride or achievement.   We’re just meat in a seat, more human resources to be used up and cast aside once we’re so burned out we’re simply cinders rattling around in otherwise empty husks.

We’re the ones who’ve tried playing by the rules, damn it.  We’ve done everything we’re supposed to, tried so valiantly to be productive and functioning parts of society;  we’ve clung to the bullshit we were fed in school until our hands are raw and bleeding, until our bodies feel as though they’re about to collapse under the strain.  But there comes a time when we have to scream, “ENOUGH!!”

We’ve had enough of discipline-deprived children running amok through labyrinths of cans and boxes while so-called parents laugh and smile, pretending their little terrors can do no wrong; is it any wonder so many youngsters have an over-inflated sense of entitlement and infallibility? When our offspring are supplicated like miniature Gods, they’ll behave accordingly, free of consequence or personal responsibility.   Like all deities, though, some reigns are destined to end.  After being indulged and coddled for the first few years of life, they’re shipped off to school and drugged into slack-jawed zombies when it’s found they can’t sit still. 

We’ve been brought up to believe that we should all be hypersensitive, that the key to a happy and healthy life is tunneling down into the core of deep-seated psychological traumas; we’re told we are broken, that we’re damaged toys whose windup keys can only be repaired by introspection and internal filibusters.  But maybe we just need to keep busy with things that really count.  Maybe we spend too much god damn time within the brambles our own heads and not enough with our hands, building and creating and clawing forward instead of looking back.  Or maybe we just haven’t had enough prescriptions to strangle such a ludicrous idea, because if there’s one thing we can count on it’s that we all get our meds.

Speaking of which, we’re fed up with taking pills to treat the side-effects of the pills we’re taking to patch what’s wrong with us in the first place.  Anal leakage, chemical color blindness, suicidal ideation,  fatigue, hair loss, and potential birth defects:  such a small price to pay to ensure we can get it up well into our twilight years or continue eating spicy foods indiscriminately.   The commercials for these pills tell us to ask our doctors if a prescription is right for us, but doesn’t that seem a little backward?  Isn’t the point of an office visit for a trained professional to utilize his or her education and experience to determine a course of treatment?  But if the ads say we should ask our doctor, then who are we to question?  After all, the commercials tell us how to be popular, how to behave, what to like, and what to think;  they program our brains with insecurity, fear, and doubt and then offer the snake oil to make it all go away.  Better living through fabric softener and increased sex appeal via car insurance.  Clothes, diapers, pet food, and candy: they disguise our wants as needs and we buy into it hook, line, and sinker.  That’s the true propaganda of this age:  it’s not political, but consumer driven.  And we’re inundated with it nearly every minute of every day.

When we turn on our televisions, horror and atrocities are beamed directly into our living rooms with high definition, surround sound clarity.   Crazed men eating faces on busy highways, rape, murder, genocide, war, pestilence, famine, and death… but first, a word from our sponsor.  We’re all fat and gassy and have horrible skin, but here’s an easy fix that doesn’t require us to make any changes to our personal habits at all.  Now back to the newsroom where we see there’s been yet another school shooting, so here’s some footage of grieving parents and teachers to tide us over until the special interest groups have a chance to advance their own religious and political agendas by exploiting the suffering and pain of others. 

But why should we expect anything different or anything more? Politics has become a team sport, complete with rabid supporters waving pennants while the rest of us huddle in the rain outside the stadium.  If we’re lucky, maybe they’ll help us forget we’re wet and cold; maybe they’ll distract us with glitz and glitter, another fucking celebrity wedding/death/divorce/scandal… or perhaps a PSA about the evils of bullying so we can feel righteous indignation before returning to a singing contest where judges attack hopeful contestants who dared to believe in themselves, washing away their dreams in tsunamis of tears as they’re assaulted with words specifically designed to inflict maximum emotional damage. 

We see all this and so much more.  We reject it just as a stomach purges itself of an influx of poison.  We refuse to choke it back down.  We refuse to take part in the madness any longer.  In the parlance of the day, we’re a significant sample of the demographic who just want to see it all burn.

Why the fuck do we want an apocalypse?  Shit, man… isn’t it obvious?