PARIS, Va. -- Past midnight, behind the old white house on the hill, Toby Harding paces, weary and silent. His muddy hiking boots pound the back porch, the wood creaking beneath him. Freezing wind slaps his face. He frowns and stares into the dark, icy woods where -- somewhere -- a boy is lost.
About 50 rescue workers, guided by barking bloodhounds, are scouring the blackened forest beyond Harding's gaze. Helicopters, using heat-sensing scanners, have failed to locate the child in a two-hour search. With a wind-chill near zero, time -- and possibly the life of 7-year-old Michael Hitchcock -- is running out.
"Where can that kid be?" grumbles Harding, a fire department lieutenant in Fauquier County, 50 miles west of Washington. "All these people looking for all this time, and no one turns up anything -- no signs, no clues, no nothing. It's damn frustrating."
The frustration turns to happiness later in the day, however, as Michael is found, more than 10 miles from where he wandered away from his mother and a friend during an afternoon hike the day before in Sky Meadows State Park. Michael has spent the night between two logs, he says, and appears none the worse for his ordeal.
For the preceding 20 hours, however, Harding and colleagues have been immersed in the life-and-death drama of an all-night wilderness search, fighting time, fears and fatigue.Midnight Sunday
A sheriff's deputy twists his watch around his wrist. He glances at the time, then looks over his shoulder at a thermometer nailed to the wall next to a window on the second story of the old house, usually the park's visitor center, but tonight a crowded command base.
The thermometer registers 25 degrees. The deputy stares from the window. "So many places," he mumbles, "that kid could be so many places."
Outside, four men in hunting jackets have returned from searching and are relaxing on a bench next to the back porch. They silently watch the last of the four helicopters leave. "They had no luck either, huh?" one man asks. "Damn."
The four men soon meet upstairs in the dimly lit house, now littered with coffee cups and half-eaten sandwiches. Volunteers bounce off each other, telephones ring, two-way radios are tested and cardboard boxes are dragged across the cluttered, dusty floor.
Like every other team returning from a search -- there will be about two dozen teams before the operation ends -- they must report to a member of the Appalachian Search and Rescue Conference, which is supervising the rescue operation. The volunteer group, most of whose members are in their early twenties, conducts about 20 such searches a year. Some end in a few hours; others have lasted a week.
Chris Metzler, a 23-year-old University of Virginia graduate, is the search commander. Metzler arrived by helicopter around 8 p.m., three hours after sheriff's deputies and state police began looking for Michael.
"You have to do a million things right away," said Metzler, who has been involved in searches for three years. "You have to balance how much time you can afford to prepare against how much time you know you cannot lose."
As others defined the initial search area, Metzler dispatched a few search teams and scent-sniffing dogs into the 1,100-acre state park, which borders the Blue Ridge Mountains.
About 10 p.m., everyone was radioed back to the base to allow the helicopters to go out. They tracked some animals, but not Michael. The searchers, wearing small spotlights atop their heads, returned to the woods about 11:30 p.m.
Most are coming back now.
"It was futile," says Carol McConaughy, a Gaithersburg teacher, leaning against the back porch with three scent dogs. "We were assigned to check out all the ponds, but they were frozen."
The ground is also frozen, making tracking much more difficult. Still, as rescuers bound up and down the narrow wooden stairs leading to the second-floor command room, hope abounds. It is still early.
A new search team arrives from Columbia. Its members sit under a tree, reading a flier about Michael, as they await their assignment.
"Four feet tall, 50 pounds, had on a blue-and-red jacket and blue jeans. Everybody got that?" asks 16-year-old Dylan Murphy. He turns and whispers to a reporter: "No matter how cold it gets, I plan to find this kid."
His group is sent into the woods. It will not return for four hours. When it does, there is no sign of Michael. Monday, 3 a.m.
The boy's mother, Deborah Reyna, 31, has left the command post. Sheriff's deputies have taken her for a lie detector test, "a matter of procedure in this kind of thing," says Lt. David Flohr. "This is getting to be a very serious situation, and it's our job to be suspicious."
Thirteen search teams, some with dogs, are in the woods. The temperature is in the teens, the wind still strong.
At the command post, coordinators stare at a large wall map of the area, scribbling the strength and direction of the wind like they were pieces of a puzzle. Dozens of people are crammed inside the old house.
Suddenly, all the lights go out, leaving only the sound of shuffling boots and jingling keys. A small copying machine has overloaded a fuse, which is quickly repaired. The machine had been making copies of a seven-step evacuation plan if Michael is found alive.
Metzler leans against a desk, studying the list. It emphasizes that the boy will probably be hypothermic. Another volunteer, clutching the sheet, walks toward Metzler and asks, "What if he's dead?"
There is a brief silence before Metzler responds. "This list isn't about that," he says sternly. "We'll get to that later."
An updated briefing sheet describing Michael is now distributed: the boy likes ponds, horses, squirrels.
A sheriff's deputy speaks hurriedly to an Army official over the phone. "How many men can you give us in the morning?" he asks.
In a messy upstairs bedroom lit with one small lamp, a few volunteers work silently with maps and file boxes containing data on recent searches in the mid-Atlantic states.
The files describe the behavior of other children who have become lost in forests and mountainous terrain. "We can use this to generalize," says Jim Rooney, a search coordinator, "to learn where we need to work most."
He watches as Paul Torrence, who is kneeling on the floor, draws color-coded circles of probability on a map. Another volunteer analyzes a list of possible clues to Michael's whereabouts. "Nothing much," he says.
Downstairs in the kitchen, local residents cook gallons of soup and dozens of hot dogs. They swap stories and share their doubts that Michael will be found alive. They yawn and listen quietly as another rescuer returns and sits down in the kitchen. "We've been to the top of that mountain and back," he says. "Everybody has. Something about this is strange."
He sips coffee and stares out the window. Dawn
Secret ballots are being cast.
To determine where to focus their search efforts, about a dozen people in the house have been asked to study the Appalachian team's files and decide where the search should be concentrated. The secrecy of the vote eliminates second-guessing if the search fails to find the boy. Weary searchers, some of whom have been roused from naps, choose corners of the room and solemnly consider their decision.
"We'll be on this script from here on out," Rooney says.
For 30 minutes a dispatcher frantically tries to reach search teams, then yells from a window to some men starting a truck: "Grab anyone you see out there. We can't find them."
Metzler walks outside as the sun rises. "Finally I get to see what we're dealing with," he says, glancing at the hilly landscape.
About 50 Army soldiers arrive by bus. Volunteers scramble to find them canteens. The soldiers tie fluorescent bands around their helmets so hunters in the woods won't mistake them for game.
The last overnight search teams to return trudge behind the house and collapse beneath some trees. They are mystified.
"If that kid has been walking all night, he's got to be a long way," Flohr says, peering through his binoculars.
Morning pivots into afternoon. Nearly 100 rescuers are in the woods and about 50 others mull about the house. As Metzler works to find more phones, the good news comes: Michael has been found, walking down a subdivision street 10 miles away.
Metzler sighs and smiles. Search statistics show that lost children are likely to travel far, he says. "Being lost is an adventure to them," he adds, slowly shaking his head, "quite an adventure."