Jake Manna was on a job installing solar panels at a home when he saw a woman frantically run down the street.
The autistic girl had apparently slipped away from her yard around noon, he said, and she had been missing for about 15 minutes. Neighbors who checked their home security camera footage reported that they had seen her skipping through their yards.
As Manna saw people on the street looking in their backyards and garages for the missing child, he stopped what he was doing and jumped in to help.
It occurred to him and a few others that the girl might have gone into a wooded area that surrounds the neighborhood.
“There are lots of trails, and nobody was looking there,” said Manna, 20, who is from Hanover, Mass., about 16 miles away.
He and a man who lives on the street decided to go into the forested area and split up to search for the girl, he said.
Manna walked past a “trail closed” sign and made his way down the path for about 10 or 15 minutes, looking left and right for any sign of the child. Near the end of the trail, he said, he caught a glimpse of water through the trees.
“I sprinted down to it and I saw there was a stream, and I saw a T-shirt and a diaper floating in it,” he said. “My heart dropped.”
Manna, a former lifeguard, said he thought the girl might have drowned. He ran down the stream to look for her and ended up in a marsh. There was a naked child splashing in it.
“She was playing in the water, and it was up to her waist,” he recalled. “I called out to her, but I didn’t want to scream, because I thought that would scare her. She was walking toward deeper water that was about 10 feet out, so I told her to stop.”
When the girl didn’t listen to him, Manna said, he quickly peeled off his shoes and socks and waded out to her. She was about 30 feet away, he said.
“It was a real muddy marsh — my feet started sinking into the bottom like [it was] quicksand,” he said. “When I reached her, I picked her up by the armpits, held her as high as I could and brought her back to land.”
The child didn’t cry or make a sound of any kind, Manna said.
The neighbor he had been searching with heard him calling out to the girl and hurried down the trail to help.
“I handed her to him and he held her like a baby and carried her back to the neighborhood,” said Manna, noting that somebody gave the girl a lifejacket and towel to wear while everyone waited for the mother to arrive.
“When the mom saw us, she ran to us, grabbed the girl and went to the ground with her to hug her for the longest time, probably 30 minutes,” he said. “She was pretty emotional, as you can imagine, and she was grateful we had found her.”
By this time, police had arrived, Manna said, so he returned to his job, where he was meeting with a home inspector.
“I was just really happy that I could help reunite the girl with her mom, and I figured that was it,” he said.
The child could have drowned if Manna hadn’t found her, said Capt. Jason Higgins of the Plymouth Police Department.
“She is autistic and nonverbal, and the marsh led to some deeper water,” he said. “The officers responding on the scene realized right away that Jake is a pretty special young man. He’d dropped what he was doing to go look for her.”
The day after the rescue, Plymouth police presented Manna with an appreciation certificate and a coin with the department’s insignia to thank him for his quick actions.
“If he didn’t pick that path and see the missing clothing, we hate to think about what the outcome would have been,” read a Plymouth police Facebook post about the rescue.
“That girl had a guardian angel yesterday … and his name was Jake,” Officer Vinnie Roth wrote on the Facebook post. He was one of the first officers to respond to the call in Buttermilk Bay.
The praise continued in Manna’s hometown, where he was honored by the Hanover Select Board on July 18 for getting the child to safety.
“Jake is a quiet and modest but confident young man,” Hanover Town Manager Joseph Colangelo said. “Everyone in Hanover is proud of him.”
Manna, a 2020 graduate of Hanover High School, worked for several years as a lifeguard at a nearby summer camp. As part of that job, he often encountered children with special needs, he said.
“I learned to be a little more patient and understanding,” Manna said. “I enjoyed working with them and kids of all kinds.”
“Sometimes, a child will have sensory issues with anything touching their skin,” he added. “That’s what this little girl’s mother said about her after she was found. She has a wristband monitor that she’s always tearing off.”
The mother requested that she and her daughter not be identified publicly. Manna said he hopes the mother is not too hard on herself.
“Things happen, and I’d hate for her to think it was her fault,” he said.
Police have found no evidence of parental neglect, Higgins said.
“Although the mom is not willing to talk [to the media], she is very thankful for Jake’s actions and the entire neighborhood’s actions,” he said. “She knows this might have ended differently if Jake hadn’t happened to find a correct path.”
Manna said he feels grateful that he happened to be paying attention on a hot summer day.
“I was at the right place at the right time,” he said. “If somebody was going to find her, I’m happy it was me.”