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October 2006

Lost & Found

John Donovan disappeared in a high-elevation blizzard, leaving rescuers and friends stumped. But his backpack contained a miracle clue.

Donovan’s body lay just 50 yards from Day and Allen. Though they never saw it, it was just downstream, by a 20-foot waterfall, in a pool set amid birches and mossy green rocks.

But because help, or even a recovery crew, never came for him, Donovan provided the Texas couple with a way out. In the pack, Day and Allen found matches–roughly 20 strike-anywheres preserved in a plastic bag. At once, Day set to work lighting a signal fire. He piled dry vines and leaves and set them ablaze as Allen waved an orange stuff sack they found in Donovan’s pack.

Soon, a helicopter floated over. “I was ripping branches off dead trees, frantically feeding the fire,” says Day. “Gina was jumping up and down, yelling.”

The copter drifted by, its occupants oblivious, and the next morning–the couple’s fourth day on the mountain–there were a dozen matches left. “If we’re going out,” Day told Allen, “we’re going out swinging.” He gathered 30 or so dry logs and lit them. He shredded spent matches for kindling. The flames leaped 20 feet. Suddenly, half an acre was burning. Day sprinted toward Allen, hoping that the blaze wouldn’t engulf them. “The smoke was thick,” he says, “and the trees were on fire. I’m thinking, it’s going. It’s a good signal fire.”

Rescue workers had begun looking the night before after family members reported them missing. Soon, a helicopter began circling. Allen blew kisses to the pilot and leapt in the air, shouting. Then she clung to Day, sobbing. “Thank you,” she said. “You saved my life.”

Three weeks later, rescue personnel returned on a different mission, and a voice crackled over the radio: “We’ve got a body in the water.” Donovan’s body was wrapped in his tarp, straddling a fallen branch choking the stream. Now, only one mystery lingered. Was Donovan’s final message a suicide note? Did he leap to his death, anguished, after 11 days of waiting? Or did he slip and endure a final fall? Not even his closest friends know the truth.

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