How Technology Saved The Lives Of Two Injured Tourists In A Jungle In Indonesia
When disaster strands two American tourists in the jungle, unable to walk and unlikely to be found, they have one hope: a phone with a dying battery
Aimee Spevak was supposed to be working. Actually, she was supposed to be on vacation—she had rented a cabin in the Pocono Mountains last August to get away from the New York City heat. But no one can ever truly break away these days and Spevak, a freelance medical writer, found herself stuck inside on this lovely summer day, finishing an assignment. She procrastinated a little, surfing the Web now and then. When she checked her Facebook news feed, she was delighted to see a notification from her friend Michael Lythcott. Lythcott was an intrepid traveller. In fact, he and Spevak had trekked through Nepal together a few years back. Spevak knew he was in Bali now and was glad to take a momentary vicarious trip.
And then she read the post. Rather than seeing beautiful travel photos or a detailed narrative of Lythcott’s journey, Spevak saw a bright red background and a few stark words written in white: “Help. In danger. Call police.”
Mikey Lythcott, a 39-year-old graphic designer, had indeed travelled to Bali. He and his friend Stacey Eno, 25, had landed on the Indonesian island just the day before. Excited for their adventure, the two Americans had rented a scooter on the outskirts of Ubud and driven into town, where they stayed until the wee hours doing what they both loved: chatting with strangers from all over the world.
It was pitch-dark, well past 2 a.m., when they hopped back on the scooter and headed to their hotel. Lythcott had placed his iPhone in the pouch of the scooter and was using it to navigate. As they climbed a hill past the rice paddies and the jungle, he glanced down at the GPS and back up at the road—a curve ahead. Lythcott tapped the brakes to make the turn. He didn’t tap fast enough.
He awoke sometime later to the babble of nearby water. He was flat on his back on a steep slope, surrounded by vegetation. The jungle. He tried to sit up, but his body wouldn’t cooperate. What happened?, he wondered. Where am I? In an empty forest? Then it came to him. Bali! But why? He strained to think, but his mind was a fog.
Oh man ... I was in a scooter accident, he thought. That much came back to him now, nothing more. Nothing about flying 150 feet through the air down this ravine, nothing about slamming into trees, nothing that explained the blood he could taste and feel, the dull pain all through his body.
He took stock. His glasses were gone. The scooter was gone, and with it his cell phone. His left wrist and torso were smashed up badly, as was his back. He couldn’t move his legs. Finally he remembered his companion. “Stacey!” She didn’t answer. “Stacey, where are you?” His voice came out surprisingly quiet. He’d learn later that both his lungs had collapsed.
“I’m right here.”
She was only a few feet away. Lythcott dragged himself towards her through the darkness until he was beside her.
“I don’t know what’s going on,” she said. “Why are we in the woods?”
“We were in an accident. Can you move?”
Lythcott and Eno, seen here on their way to Bali, were globetrotters who met in Thailand and became fast friends.
“Stacey, I need you to get up and walk and get us help.”
This jolted Lythcott. No one knew they were there. They couldn’t walk. His back was probably broken. He was bleeding out. I think we might die here, he thought.
Making matters worse, he had begun sliding downhill along the wet jungle floor past thick-trunked banyan trees to whatever terrors lay below.
“I’m scared,” Eno said. She sounded farther and farther away. At last, Lythcott came to rest in a tiny depression on the hillside where he could grasp a tree root. There, in his nook, an eerie calm came over him. If he was going to die, let it be like this, in a peaceful place. Let him close his eyes and allow it to take him over.
No, he scolded himself. Stop thinking that way. You have to save yourself. You have to save Stacey.
But how would anyone find them? If only he hadn’t lost his phone in the wreck. Then he remembered—he had a second phone, the one with his American SIM card that allowed him to contact the United States. He felt around in his jacket pocket, and there it was! Carefully he pulled it out, powered it on, and turned on international data roaming, balancing the phone on his chest with his good hand. Battery charge: 42 per cent.
He thought about googling the number for the local police and hoping that whoever answered spoke English. But even if the person did, what would he say? “I’ve been in an accident, and I’m ... somewhere?”
He noticed a few of the apps he’d left open on the phone, including Facebook. An idea struck. Taking great care not to let the blood-slicked phone tumble down the dark ravine, he opened a bright red backdrop on his status page and typed away. Less than two minutes later, Aimee Spevak saw the post.
At first, Spevak had no idea what to do. What could she do? Where in Bali was he? Then she remembered that Facebook has a function that allows you to call your friends. She gave it a try. To her immense surprise and relief, Lythcott picked up. Sometimes the incessant connectivity of the online world isn’t such a bad thing.
“Aimee,” he said, “I’m in the woods. I don’t know where I am. I don’t know what’s happening.”
“OK” Spevak said. “Can you send me your location?”
“I’m going to call somebody, and we’ll get you out of there.”
After they hung up, Lythcott sent her his GPS coordinates on a map using Facebook’s ‘pin drop’ function. Now one person in the world knew where he was.
Spevak, though, had no idea whom to call or how to proceed. But she knew who would: someone in Lythcott’s vast circle of friends from around the globe. She posted a screenshot of the pin drop to the Facebook comment thread and watched nervously as every few seconds another friend jumped into the conversation.
“Mikey!! ARE YOU OKAY???” “Mikey, what police do we call???” “Do you know what to do here?” “?????”
Ricardo Mendes, wanting Lythcott to activate Apple’s Emergency SOS call, wrote, “PRESS THE OFF BUTTON OF YOUR IPHONE 5 TIMES QUICKLY.”
Kaitlin Haggard found all the local police numbers by district and shared them.
Leah Schlossman aired her frustration: “I can’t get through to any of these numbers and Michael’s line is busy.”
Misty McKenzie-Hill: “Please, please let him be OK.”
Emilie Stein: “Dude, I will fly out tonight and come get you if you need.”
Meanwhile, Stacey Eno continued to struggle. She was trying to scream for help, but each time it came out like a whimper. She was in and out of consciousness, confused and numbed by pain. Her face bones had been shattered. Some object had slammed into her mouth in the crash, slicing her tongue and loosening teeth.
“Stacey,” Lythcott said. “I’m trying to get help.”
Why aren’t either of us getting up? Eno wondered. Lythcott had said he thought his back was broken; what about hers? She tried to move her legs but couldn’t get them underneath her. Any movement made her feel as if she might fall down the steep incline to whatever dangers lay below.
She dug her fingernails into the soil and waited for the help that Lythcott hoped was on the way.
Only days earlier she had been in her classroom in Korea, where she taught English. Her family back in Michigan had thought she was crazy to travel to the other side of the globe for work and longed for her to come home.
Among those glued to Lythcott’s rapidly moving Facebook feed was Josh Hofer, an old friend who was sitting at his office computer in Raleigh, North Carolina. Like Spevak, he’d felt a jolt when he first read Lythcott’s post, then was relieved to see the pin drop Spevak had posted. But his enthusiasm quickly waned: The location was frustratingly vague. He decided to fiddle with it and opened up the pin drop on his phone instead of on his computer. Instantly, it showed greater detail. He took a screenshot and sent it to the US Consulate in Indonesia.
Out in Los Angeles, Paul Rocha was watching the thread with rapt interest. Lythcott had mustered sufficient consciousness to share that he could hear water nearby. Taking Spevak’s and Hofer’s screenshots, plus Lythcott’s hint about flowing water, Rocha created a map of his own, with a circle indicating the likeliest search area. Then he posted it to the thread.
In Prague, Lythcott’s friend Caitlin scrutinized the map and concluded that the crash must have occurred between a certain cooking school and a local bar.
A less sketchy picture of the situation was emerging gradually: Lythcott and Eno were outside of Ubud in the jungle near a place called Sweetwater Falls. On the comment thread, friends from all over the world had begun posting contact information for police, hospitals and ambulance services in Bali, and many of them were bombarding those numbers with calls. Someone posted the number for the US Consulate in Indonesia.
In Surabaya, Indonesia, one island away from Bali, Christine Getzler-Vaughan, a public affairs officer at the US Consulate General, was monitoring the night-duty emergency phone when it began to ring. “My friend posted on Facebook that he’s hurt and needs help,” the caller said.
Getzler-Vaughan grabbed her notebook. “What’s his name?” she asked. “What’s his last known location?” The caller supplied as much detail as possible. Seconds after they hung up, the phone rang again: another of Lythcott’s friends. And so it went for the next two hours.
Getzler-Vaughan frantically multitasked, working by phone, text, and email, receiving and parsing a landslide of information from the Facebook posse: screenshots, maps, tips, phone numbers, Lythcott’s date of birth, his family contacts, all with the aim of sending a physical search party to the correct location. Someone had even activated the US State Department’s emergency operations centre in Washington, DC.
Getzler-Vaughan passed on what she knew to officials in Bali. At 5:29 a.m., less than an hour after his Facebook SOS, she texted Lythcott: “Someone from our office in Bali has the info your friends have sent us.”
“Can’t move,” he typed back. Then he added: “6 perrxcntt batt.”
Tempers were beginning to fray on Lythcott’s feed. His well-intentioned friends were clogging the thread by voicing concern or requesting updates. In so doing, they were burying important information Balinese authorities would need if they were to rescue him and Eno.
“For Christ’s sake, EVERYONE STOP POSTING,” one poster snapped. “Unless you have an update we need this thread to STOP NOW.” All capital letters—the internet’s cue that you are raising your voice.
Another took exception: “Dude. Please stop yelling at everyone.”
The reply: “Our friend is in serious trouble and needs help. I will yell my face off if that helps to get a point across!”
Meanwhile, half a world away, Eno and Lythcott lay bleeding in the ravine. Any time Eno came to, she was overwhelmed by her fear of falling. “I’m slipping,” she said.
“Try to hang on,” Lythcott said. “Help is coming.”
He had no idea. By then, his phone battery had died. Now they were truly alone.
Lythcott was drifting in and out of consciousness when he heard the sound of brush rustling. He tensed up. Bali has snakes—cobras and pythons—and he wasn’t exactly in a condition to defend himself. He waited anxiously as whatever it was approached. Soon the sound turned into a murmur, then into voices. A search party!
Speaking little English, four rescuers carefully cradled Lythcott’s back and neck as they carried him up to a flatbed truck. Sometime later they placed Eno beside him in the cargo area. Her hair was soaked and matted with blood and grime. More blood covered her torso and legs. Lythcott barely recognized her.
At 8:14 a.m.—nearly four hours after Mikey Lythcott posted his plea for help on Facebook—Caitlin from Prague, who had been in constant touch with the hospital in Ubud, posted: “UPDATE—HE IS OKAY AND IN THE HOSPITAL!”
Friends from Portland to Pretoria, Seattle to Sydney, breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Their sentiments could be summed up by a post from Jay Holmes: “Thank you, that’s what we all needed to hear.”
Eno spent eight days at a hospital in Bali before returning to her teaching job in South Korea. She had suffered a fractured wrist, shattered cheekbones, severe injuries to her mouth and tongue and a badly broken nose. Lythcott’s condition was worse: internal bleeding, collapsed lungs, a broken wrist, broken ribs, a fractured back and skull, a perforated colon, a bruised liver. But three weeks after the crash, he was out of the hospital and recuperating at his sister’s house in Atlanta.
A miracle? Maybe. But there’s a lesson here too. As Georgia Chapman Costa, one of Lythcott’s Facebook friends, put it on the feed: “When people come together, wonderful things happen.” Even when they are coming together somewhere way out there in cyberspace.