As Foxtrot Team waited for the bus to fill, there wasn’t anything to do but stare at the phone in my hands. Minutes earlier, I’d volunteered to be Foxtrot’s secondary point of contact with Search and Rescue, meaning my phone would be used to report and receive news should our team leader’s dispatch radio fail to function. We were quiet and anxious in those final moments on Saturday morning before beginning our search for Hannah Graham, an 18-year-old University of Virginia student who’d first been reported missing one week earlier.
I tried to go through my mental checklist, remembering what I’d been taught at the prior night’s briefing for volunteers, but my thoughts kept returning to my phone. Would I have to use it today? And what would I have to report if I did?
* * *
I’d arrived alone in Charlottesville the day before under gray skies, expecting to see a community shattered and subdued. But I passed dozens of students playing pickup football and frisbee on the lawn in front of the campus’s iconic Rotunda, and saw even more gathered around pitchers of beer on bar patios, all relaxed and ready to begin the weekend. Aside from a few reminders of the disappearance – a bridge had been painted with the rallying cry “Bring Hannah Home” and a sign outside a church notified passersby of its availability to those hoping to pray for her return – it was difficult to tell that the campus was the center of what had become a news story of increasing national significance. Even at the school’s amphitheater, where the night before thousands had gathered for a candlelit vigil, workers were busy disassembling the stage and scurrying away the folding chairs that had been used, seemingly restoring the collective sense of normality before my eyes.
It was only after I ducked into a bar on the edge of campus, hoping to catch a televised press conference about the investigation, that the ongoing trauma revealed its impact. Minutes before the conference’s 5 p.m. start time, a singer had been performing on the patio, Top 40 music was blaring from the speakers inside, and the three televisions above the bar were set to ESPN. But that mundanity, and whatever normality I’d allowed myself to feel since my arrival, ended the second the channels were changed, the singing and radio stopped, and the press conference began.
People who had been sitting on the patio came inside to watch, and the waitstaff and bartenders abandoned their duties to turn and look upward with their patrons. For the conference’s 20-minute duration, business was brought to a standstill. The waitresses, in particular, looked on with grave concern. It was swiftly apparent that things remained far from normal in Charlottesville.
The few details of Hannah’s disappearance are horrifying. She was probably drunk and definitely alone late at night in a relatively unfamiliar part of town, having apparently left her group of friends to walk to another party. Security footage shows a man walking in the opposite direction as she passes, only to change course and follow closely behind her. Within minutes, witnesses report, his arm is around her waist and they enter a bar together. She texted her friends shortly thereafter indicating uncertainty of her location, and was not heard from again.
Those details were rehashed Friday evening at a mandatory briefing at John Paul Jones Arena for members of the community hoping to join the search. After waiting for about 30 minutes in a near-silent line, about 1,200 aspiring volunteers signed liability waivers and received a time to report back to the arena in the morning, as teams would be leaving in shifts throughout the day. (I was asked by a wincing student volunteer if I minded going out “really early in the morning.” I said that wouldn’t be a problem, and was handed a ticket instructing me to report at 8:30 a.m., which made me feel roughly a billion years old.)
Once registered, each volunteer was given a wristband – somewhat tastelessly adorned with Bud Light logos – that we were told had to be worn for the duration of our search. Before the briefing began, a young student behind me wondered aloud whether her wristband would enable her to get into bars that evening, apparently having failed to grasp one of the singular lessons of the past several days.
Thankfully the rest of the volunteers, the majority of whom were middle-aged, were appropriately quiet and reflective as the briefing proceeded. We were given reminders by the sheriff and Search and Rescue authorities about what kind of clothes to look for, how to work with each other during the search, and to not even dare think about touching anything that looked like physical evidence.
By far the most compelling moment came when a pair of mothers, both of whom had recently lost daughters around Hannah’s age in similar cases, addressed the volunteers. The sheriff had handed them the microphone after telling us how much we inspired him – allowing us to briefly bask in the kind of self-congratulatory piousness familiar to anyone who’s ever attended a teacher’s conference – but that wasn’t what we needed to hear. We needed to hear from these proud, devastated women who’d lost daughters in incomprehensibly cruel ways. We needed to go into the weekend’s efforts hell-bent on doing anything we could to ease the pain of Hannah’s family, no matter how bruised or bloodied the search might make us. And we needed, we were told, a good night’s sleep beforehand.
That proved impossible, as I wrestled with what to hope for in the morning. It would be wonderful, of course, to find her somehow alive and well. But all kinds of resources, from dogs to boats to specialized teams brought in from around the region had already been employed around the clock for days with no success. If they couldn’t find her alive, what chance did any untrained volunteer have? Maybe it would be best, I thought, if we found no trace of her, and the faint, critical hope of her survival could endure for at least another day. It was only after I’d decided I should hope instead for the awful, unspeakable alternative, and then hating myself for coming to believe it with such conviction, that I finally fell asleep as dawn crept through the thin motel curtains.
* * *
The morning broke warm and sunny, and the college town looked especially beautiful in its soft light. I went to college in a town much like Charlottesville, and as such can’t speak for the kind of relationship a school in a busier city might have with its community. But I suspect a tragedy like Hannah’s disappearance resonates more deeply among local residents when it occurs in such an insulated and interconnected town. There are fewer degrees of separation among residents than here in Richmond, and that closeness cultivates a certain communal strength – maybe the word for it is devotion – that manifests itself most strongly in crises.
How else to explain what I saw Saturday morning? At 8:30 there was already a long line of people outside the arena who hadn’t attended last night’s briefing but desperately wanted to contribute to the day’s efforts. More than a dozen school buses snaked around the parking lot, ready to transport the first wave to their designated search zones. Inside, volunteers were quickly organized into groups of ten, while anyone who had military experience was ordered to attend separate training to serve as group leaders to help meet a rocketing demand.
It wasn’t long before I’d been given a neon orange-and-yellow vest and assigned to a group, exchanging bleary-eyed pleasantries with my peers and shuffling back out into the sunlight to board our bus. On our way out, an organizer informed us that we would be called Team Foxtrot, which sounded pleasingly official even if we never ended up using it. Our team leader, a 40ish man named Alan who spoke in a calm North Carolina drawl, called us over before we boarded and showed us our designated search zone on a map he’d been given. We’d be searching a few neighborhoods, he explained, but the bulk of our five-hour shift would be spent combing through dense woods. My teammates, all but one of whom were older than me, looked apprehensive. But my heart began to pound.
The ten of us were soon lined up several feet apart on a sidewalk, facing a wide field some 100 yards long and with what looked to be a wall of trees at its end. At Alan’s order, we began a slow walk forward, eyes scanning the ground. Pink iPhone case, I told myself. Silver sequined mesh top. Black pants. White shoes. Somewhere overhead a chevron of Canadian geese honked past, but I don’t think anyone on our team – in our own peculiar formation, on our own mission – even entertained the thought of looking up. If there were large stones, we overturned them. If we came to a culvert, we shone a flashlight into its mouth. And when we reached the woods, we went right into them, doing our best to keep our positions in line.
It’s funny how the mind operates when you’re doing this kind of work. Every piece of litter – at least early in the search – takes on an ominous and immediate importance, and I soon felt bad for Alan, under a barrage of well-meaning but comically trivial questions shouted at him from all places on our line. I found a shoe! No, it’s not white. But there’s only one, isn’t it strange that there aren’t two? In our first hour, we came across only one potential piece of evidence – a pair of purple latex gloves that did look suspiciously new – discarded by the side of a road. Alan took a photo, radioed it in, and we moved on.
The woods proved more dense and treacherous than I’d anticipated. We’d emerge every few hundred yards onto a street and then plunge back into a steeply banked wilderness where seemingly every bush and weed threatened us with thick thorns, which poked through my jeans and sliced into my cotton long-sleeved shirt. We collectively stopped caring about the spiderwebs in our way early on and shoved through them, never stopping to wonder if we were in a patch of poison ivy and always, always keeping eyes on the ground for clues.
The other volunteers were remarkable. A woman in her sixties to my left would pause every few minutes to pick thorns from her exposed skin. She told me she was a retired teacher. A man who said he’d been diagnosed with cancer three years ago sucked from an e-cigarette all morning and pushed through brambles with enthusiastic abandon, keeping up a steady stream of encouraging chatter. He said he’d always wanted to participate in a search like this. An older man, an academic type, fell repeatedly on the slippery stones beneath the shallow creek in the middle of the woods, picking himself up each time. He never once complained.
In the end, we found nothing. My heart had once firmly lodged itself in my throat for a moment when I thought I’d discovered a pistol, only to be told with gentle reproach by a teammate that it was just a cap gun. Alan, keeping tabs on his radio with other teams, reported that no one else had found anything useful either so far. The bus ride back to the arena parking lot was silent, and we bid each other hasty and dejected farewells before scattering like the leaves that, it seemed, had only just begun to fall from the deep blue autumn sky.
* * *
I suppose it’s not true that I had found nothing. Evil had visited Charlottesville and stolen a girl, and into its shadow more than a thousand had rushed with a message of resilience and a mission of recovery. In that response I’d seen the best of what we’re all capable of; a selflessness that unifies and inspires. In that response, I’d found a reason to hope.