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.

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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.

1 comment:

  1. Mr. Rose, thanks for volunteering your time to help find Hannah, and for sharing your story.

    Jeff Stern, State Coordinator, Virginia Department of Emergency Management