Fines, who lives near where the Sherburne County Sheriff’s Office asked volunteers to gather, knows the area well: It is filled with cornfields and swampy woods with ankle-deep water. Bad conditions for a child in the dark.
So Fines, 52, a commercial drone photographer, packed up his drone and headed out the door at 8 p.m. Oct. 15.
“I really had the tool that could help,” said Fines, referring to his $30,000 drone with a thermal camera that he uses to help farmers find runaway livestock by pinpointing their body heat.
He said that when livestock — each animal can be worth thousands of dollars — break free of a fence and run away, they can be nearly impossible to find, especially if they scatter.
“But at night with thermal drone I can find them,” he said, and he was hoping to do the same for Ethan using the camera’s heat sensitivity.
When he arrived at the volunteer meeting spot, more than 700 people were also there to search for Ethan and his dog Remington near Ethan’s home in Palmer Township, population about 2,500. It was about 30 degrees outside, Fines said.
Coordinated crews of people were taken by bus to different areas of the woods and cornfields to look for him, and a rescue helicopter was circling overhead. Fines waited a few hours to deploy his drone until the skies were clear.
Sherburne County Sheriff Joel Brott, who was coordinating the search, said everyone was “definitely worried.”
“It’s pretty rugged terrain, heavily wooded, a lot of underbrush,” Brott said. “It’s dark out, not ideal searching conditions. The little boy is not very big.”
Around 10 p.m., Fines sent up his drone, communicating with Brott and others about where he needed to look and which search pattern to use. Fines had a monitor to watch what the camera was sensing.
After a few minutes, he saw something on his screen that was unusual. When volunteers arrived to the spot, they found three otters. A big disappointment, but he kept at it, spotting deer, a bear, raccoons and other animals over several hours.
It was dark and impossible to see anything in plain sight except what was illuminated by flashlights, he said. Around 1 a.m., he took a thermal photo of a cornfield, and captured a line of hundreds of dedicated volunteers.
“That was 250 people out in the mud at 1 in the morning,” Fines said. “Nobody was losing hope, nobody was going home.”
Then, at about 1:30, a volunteer on the ground found what looked like a child’s footprint in a cornfield. It was less than a mile from where Fines was. He flew his drone to that area and saw on his monitor a shape that he called “indistinct.”
“I didn’t know what it was but I saw movement,” Fines said. “I saw what I thought was the shape of a dog’s head and that was exciting. The dog’s head looked different from a deer head, and I’ve seen a lot of deer heads. It looked really promising.”
A search party of two men and their teenage sons hustled over to the spot Fines was watching on his monitor. Fines remotely illuminated the drone and hovered over what he believed was the dog head. Then he watched his monitor.
“I could see the four heat spots approaching. When they got about 50 feet away, I saw the dog get up and start running around,” he said. “Then you could see one of the rescuers run up to the boy and pick him up.”
He knew it was Ethan. They had found him.
“I just watched it quietly for a few seconds,” Fines said. “I wanted to savor that moment because there’s a lot of moments in life and that was a really good one.”
Then he heard it over the radio: After 10 hours in the cold, Ethan had been found, lying down and shivering in a cornfield with Remington at his side.
In the pitch black, Fines heard a chorus of hooting and happy screaming from 700 people. There were eruptions of joy from cornfield to cornfield.
“It was the middle of the night and sound carries,” he said. “You could hear people from a mile away. I’m not kidding.”
Ethan, who was found about a mile and a half from his home, was hurried into a waiting ambulance. Brott climbed into the back to check on Ethan, who was cold but otherwise doing fine, he said. The sheriff said the boy didn’t appear to be terrified or worse for wear after his hours-long misadventure.
“He was your normal little boy,” Brott said. “I think having his best friend, his dog with him, kept him pretty calm.”
Ethan’s mother, Sheri Haus, a high school science teacher, said she was grateful and overwhelmed by the enormous support from her community.
“I hugged people I never thought I’d hug and I cried with people I never thought I’d cry with,” Haus said Wednesday. “I’m still in shock. I’m still in disbelief.”
Brott gave a special shout-out to Fines, and also echoed Haus’s sentiment, saying that “without 700-plus volunteers we never would have been in a position to make it happen.”
On Facebook, Haus posted a big thank you, and linked to video of a boisterous and smiling Ethan.
“Thank you for finding me!” he says into the camera. “You make my heart full!”
Thankful for the outpouring of support in the mission to find Ethan. We are overwhelmed by the police, fire departments, rescue, food, water and hundreds of volunteers that gave up up their night for Ethan. We appreciate everything you have done and can’t thank you enough! 💕Posted by Sheri Swedal Haus on Wednesday, October 16, 2019