Having a family member suddenly go missing is a terrifying experience; having this happen while your loved one is traveling in a foreign country compounds the fear with myriad complications.
I speak from experience: in 2010, my brother, vacationing on the Caribbean island of Roatan, took a small catamaran out into the shallows and was never seen or heard from again. Literally overnight, my father and I had to figure out how to organize an international air/sea search with precious little initial support from the U.S. government or any of the governments of the countries into whose waters he might have drifted.
Many months, hundreds of thousands of dollars, and uncountable tears later, we accepted the fact that we would never know exactly what happened to Joe. I promised myself I would do whatever I could to keep future families from having to invent the wheel in such a situation. Toward this end, I launched The Missing Americans Project.
What do you do when you get the phone call? Or, worse, when there is no call; when your traveling child or sibling or parent or friend, who has been diligently staying in touch throughout his or her trip, suddenly falls silent?
1. Stay calm. More easily said than done, I know, but you won’t help yourself or your loved one by panicking. If it helps, remember that most people who fall out of contact while traveling do so for simple reasons (eg., they’ve ventured into an area without cell service or internet connectivity).
2. Document what you know. Make a list of all the places where you know your missing person has been, people they’ve stayed or been in contact with, phone calls, e-mails, destinations on their itineraries. Make note of anything usual (eg., sudden changes in plans or mentions of uncharacteristic behavior). If your ordeal winds up stretching into weeks or months, detailed notes will help you and the authorities stay on track.
3. Contact the embassy in the country your missing loved one was last known to be in. Let the embassy know about your concerns and file a missing-persons report. If your missing loved one has been hospitalized or arrested and their nationality determined, the authorities should contact the embassy. If your missing person is a U.S. citizen, you also should contact the congressman for their district and at least one of your state’s senators. Brief them on the situation so that, if you need to come to them for help later, you can get straight to your request, rather than spending time educating them about the situation.
4. Contact the authorities in the country your missing loved one was last known to be in. The embassy should do this for you. If they do, ask them for contact names and phone numbers. The urgency applied to cases of missing foreigners varies widely by country, and you may need to be the squeaky wheel making follow-up calls. The same applies to embassies. You may need to rely on your congresspeople to exert pressure. Busy embassy staff may not place a high priority on your case, but they cannot ignore a congressman's call.
5. Research the country, region, and locality where your missing person was last known to be. You will spend large blocks of time waiting for authorities to get back to you with news about your missing loved one. Use this time to research the area where she was last known to be. Have other people been reported missing in the same area? Might local weather conditions have caused landslides or other disruptions that might account for her sudden silence? Are there local resources -- say, faith-based organizations or international nonprofits -- who might be able to assist in your search?
In our case, we had to learn on our own that there was a U.S. airbase in Honduras with two Blackhawk helicopters that could be called in to support the search for my brother. No one at the embassy volunteered this information, and we had to get our senators to request their involvement. The process used up precious time, and the Blackhawks only joined the search 72 hours after Joe was reported missing, greatly reducing the odds of a positive outcome.
Social media was in its infancy when we were searching for my brother; even so, we were able to use our online fishing and scuba networks to engage people on the ground and build awareness of our situation. We were put into contact with locals and ex-pats who were happy to assist, including members of a ham-radio club who greatly extended the reach of our messages.
6. If you don’t have a passport, get one. Your congresspeople should be able to expedite the process.
7. Figure out how you will finance your efforts, should the process stretch out for months. We were fortunate to have a substantial network of family and friends help fund our early efforts before we realized how much an air/sea search was going to cost. This was before crowdfunding tools like GoFundMe had proliferated. Even with all the support, we were applying for new credit cards as quickly as we were maxing out existing accounts.
8. Divide up responsibilities. If you are fortunate enough to have a strong family/friends network, assign responsibilities for specific tasks. If possible, designate one person to be responsible for maintaining records. This may be the person with the best handwriting or the one most competent with Excel. I can’t emphasize this too strongly: Document everything. Keep track of all communications, all spending, all resources.
9. Eat and sleep well. This, too, is more easily said than done, but it is crucial. No one cares more about your missing loved one more than you do, and you will be under a great deal of stress as you advocate on her behalf. This will be a stressful time, and self care will enable you to stay strong in the case of a protracted search.
This is the first of a series on navigating the complexities of searching for loved ones who disappear or come to harm while traveling outside their national borders.