The Missing Americans Project

Looking for People and Answers

Job 1: Don't Get Lost in the First Place

There is a tendency in cases of missing adults (other than Alzheimer's patients) to blame the victim, especially if they disappear in an exotic region. The two most common presumptions are that they either engineered their own disappearance and are now sipping an umbrella drink on a beach somewhere or that they were somehow involved in something they ought not to have been and it backfired. This is a convenient narrative that lets its purveyors off the hook of their humanity: "Yeah, I feel bad for the guy, but, you know...."

Having said that, some common themes have emerged among the few cases I've become familiar with that suggest some simple rules to help you stay out of trouble:

1. Buddy system. In all three cases I'm familiar with, the men who disappeared went off on their own in ways that did not seem dangerous. My brother Joe took a small catamaran into the shallows off the West End of Roatan, an area he knew well; David Gimelfarb, though he signed into Rincon La Vieja along with 300 other tourists, did not have anyone along with him to be a second set of eyes or to miss him if anything happened; Ron Scheepstra, though fly fishing with several buddies, went off by himself to walk a half-mile to his car. None of these things would normally be considered dangerous activities, but clearly, in Honduras, Mexico, and the jungles of Costa Rica, they are. Even if you aren't traveling with a partner, it's a good idea to be sociable and buddy up with others.
2. Use technology. Joe and David both had cell phones, and neither had his with him. Even though phone reception can be nonexistent in these places, law enforcement and search and rescue teams can ping your phone -- even if it is turned off. Don't leave it in your room or car - keep it with you. Likewise, if you're going to be traveling in remote areas, you really should have a personal locator device. They are not terribly expensive and could be the key to being found if you get lost in the mountains or at sea. Furthermore, in an age of connectivity and social media you can usually text people back home before you head out for the day or "tweet" your whereabouts on Twitter.
3. Prepare by having essentials with you. Food and water; a sharp knife; a lighter or matches in a waterproof container; a strong flashlight and a whistle for signaling. Such simple preparation can buy you time until you are found.

I'm sure there are loads of other rules of the road for the person traveling in remote areas. Any that you can share here might save a life.

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Comment by Kraig Williams on February 27, 2010 at 8:27pm
thank you, I did not intend to post as personal bur Brian's post atacking mine was so far off the mark I had to reply. Great site, good luck, keep up the good work
Comment by Jeff Dunsavage on February 27, 2010 at 5:28pm
It's true that Joe was drinking. I make no excuses for him, and that's not what this community is about. It's about trying to help travelers stay out of trouble and to gather information and identify resources that can be of help when they do. There are other aspects of Joe's story that have not received attention and I don't want to muddy the waters by raising them in this context. What is common among all the cases we're seeing is that when people get into trouble in this part of the world, their home governments are generally unwilling and/or unable to act in a timely fashion to help find them and the families back home are hamstrung by the fact that the person they've lost is neither officially dead nor alive. These are considerations that many, if not most, vacationers do not take into account and should. We were luckier than most to have a large and geographically dispersed network of family and friends to get involved in coordinating a private search and getting our legislators to press for a military search, which eventually did occur. Most of these families are not so fortunate. Kraig, you've made an absolutely valid contribution in the context of this post, which was intended to start a conversation about how to stay out of trouble in the first place.
Comment by Kraig Williams on February 27, 2010 at 4:33pm
Actually Brian,
My post was related to the FACT that Joe Dunsavage posted one of his last post ever the morning he went missing letting us know he was already drinking. He then got on a 10 foot boat with basically no safety equipment.
While unfortunate, it is not surprising, It is like a diver drinking and doing deep dives in an unfamiliar place or a skydiver drinking and jumping from a plane without any back up.
I just cannot imagine going offshore in Central America on a ten foot boat with no safety equipment, No radio, no anchor and no back up plan.
Comment by Brian Dobbins on February 27, 2010 at 1:41am
Kraig: Your conclusions in this context are not based on fact. “The danger to society is not merely that it should believe wrong things, though that is great enough; but that it should become credulous, and lose the habit of testing things and inquiring into them; for then it must sink back into savagery.” William Kingdon Clifford, The Scientific Basis of Morals (1884)
Comment by Jeff Dunsavage on February 23, 2010 at 11:58am
Kraig: Absolutely. On and off the water, alcohol can blur one's senses and judgment -- and for many people on vacation immoderate consumption of alcohol in an unfamiliar setting and culture can set the stage for mishaps. I would counsel people to drink less than usual when traveling, not more -- unfortunately, many people tend to do the opposite.

Thanks for your comment and for joining our community.
Comment by Kraig Williams on February 23, 2010 at 11:41am
Lets not forget that drinking and boating do not mix. Judgement can be blurred and a tiny boat with no emergency equipment may at times seem like a good thing
Comment by Jeff Dunsavage on October 14, 2009 at 4:22pm
Thanks, Jeff. And yes, it's really important for people to know that sat phone coverage can be blown by overhead cover. I know my nephew had a really difficult time with his when he was in Roatan searching for Joe.
Comment by Jeffrey S. Brehm on October 14, 2009 at 3:43pm
Great information Jeff, I would also add a satellite phone to that list and the personal locator device is a must. I use satellite phones regularly on our offshore fishing trips, the service is not like a cell phone in that the coverage based on satellites in orbit and they typically only work when a satellite is overhead. Having said that they do work, you just have to wait for a signal. They also require clear site to the sky so a thick jungle canopy or other obstruction would restrict service. Like anything else, having the device is one thing, knowing how to use it is another. These phones are expensive but they can be rented for a minimal cost.

For anyone engaged in hiking, kayaking etc a handheld GPS is also something that should be on the list.

There is a separate issue that I will post in a separate blog but that relates to paperwork and documentation. Providing copies of a passport and medical insurance information to the proper people prior to departure. Also having a durable power of attorney, hipaa release form and other legal documents.

I suspect people will think this is overkill and say "what are the odds" but there is no problem until there is problem. What are the odd's of your house burning down? I bet you have homeowners insurance though! It is about mitigating the risk of life changing disaster.

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