A carefully-orchestrated response by local law enforcement and firefighters led to a happy ending last Friday when a visiting hurricane evacuee from North Charleston was reported missing from a Batesburg-Leesville senior care center.
The 67-year-old man, who reportedly suffers with dementia but was in otherwise good health, was among more than 60 seniors from the Lowcountry who took shelter at Generations of Batesburg with the approach of Hurricane Dorian last week. The man wandered away from one of Generations’ assisted living homes off Wilson Street and was missing about four hours before he was found about 2.5 miles away just before 7 p.m.
“When you find a missing person still alive, still in good shape, that’s a good day,” said Batesburg-Leesville Police Chief Wallace Oswald after the good news crackled across the radio at a bustling command post set up in the parking lot behind Pizza Hut, just across the street from Generations.
The man, whose name The Twin-City News elects not to publish out of an abundance of compassion, is a full-time resident of Langit’s Assisted Living on Remount Road in North Charleston. Langit’s had moved all of its residents inland in advance of the hurricane to be housed temporarily in Batesburg, according to Generations of Batesburg administrator Hammie Nix.
“We supplied them food and their beds to sleep on,” Ms. Nix said. “We just made a way for them because they had to get away from the storm.”
Generations of Batesburg staff were not directly involved in the care of the visiting evacuees, who were accompanied by 10 Langit’s staff members, Ms. Nix said, but “as soon as we found out that he was missing, we called 911.”
Multiple agencies were involved
As nightfall approached, the missing man was spotted by Darrell Long, an off-duty firefighter, who alerted the search team to an unidentified person walking through a field on Bethlehem Church Road. After the elderly man’s identity was confirmed on-scene, emergency personnel bolted to the area and offered medical care.
Personnel from the Batesburg-Leesville Police and Fire Departments, the Lexington County Sheriff’s Office, Lexington County Emergency Medical Services, Lexington County Fire Service, and the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) participated in the massive search-and-rescue effort.
“I appreciate the help of all these departments,” Chief Oswald said. “When you have something like this happen, you try to jump on it full-steam. We just tried to push everything we could into this search, and we all worked well together.”
Authorities had to overcome two unforeseen obstacles during their search. Langit’s Assisted Living staffers first noticed the man missing around 2:30 p.m. but did not alert Generations staff for at least an hour.
“About 3:30, we were notified that they had someone missing,” Ms. Nix said, adding that Generations staff — including Ms. Nix herself — immediately took to the streets to search for the man. “When things like this happen, you don’t really look at the clock. You just spring into action.”
Also, the initial description provided to authorities was inaccurate. Given a recent photograph of the man, who was pictured with a beard, police originally were told in error that the man was now clean-shaven. In fact, he still wore his beard. The first reports of what the man was wearing also proved inaccurate, Chief Oswald said.
Langit’s Assisted Living did not respond to phone calls placed to its North Charleston facility early this week.
When the 911 call finally came in to local dispatch, emergency personnel converged on the Pizza Hut parking lot, and a large map of the town was set up on an easel next to the Fire Department’s mobile support unit. Batesburg-Leesville Police officers took command of the search effort, coordinating units via two-way radio.
A perimeter was established, and the neighborhoods surrounding Generations were divided into quadrants on the map. At least four search teams fanned out.
First responders scoured the area on foot and in emergency vehicles. From the air, the B-L Police Department drone conducted a birds-eye search. Within an hour, a helicopter from SLED thundered through the skies from Columbia and picked up the search.
‘He was trying to get home’
Old-fashioned shoe-leather, door-to-door investigation revealed that around 2:45 p.m., the missing man had strolled casually into the Dollar General store on Willis Street and purchased Vitamin Water and paper towels. He then continued walking down Highway 391.
“I’m sure he was seeing the news about what’s going on in Charleston, and I think he was trying to get home,” Chief Oswald said.
An updated security camera photo of the missing man soon was released by Batesburg-Leesville Police on its social media. The new photo showed him wearing a blue T-shirt, dark pants and a camouflage cap emblazoned with the word JESUS.
As the search progressed, first responders knew their biggest enemies were time and the late-afternoon heat. Temperatures on Friday afternoon hovered in the mid-90s with oppressive humidity.
“Our biggest worry was that we wouldn’t find him before night, and he would have to spend the night out there,” Chief Oswald said.
If the man had been forced to stay outdoors overnight or tried to continue walking in the darkness, given his dementia and advanced age, his chances of survival would have been diminished, the police chief said.
This is not the first time an elderly patient has wandered away from the Batesburg location of Generations. After this latest rogue senior was safely located and returned, Chief Oswald said he spoke with staff at the center about keeping a more careful eye on its clients.
“It hasn’t happened in while, not like it used to be,” Chief Oswald said. “I guess they’ve gotten better, but it shouldn’t happen.”
Ms. Nix counters that her staff reacted quickly and responsibly to the missing-person crisis.
“I’ve been here 11-1/2 years, and I’ve had one (previous) elopement since I’ve been here,” she said, using a senior-care industry term for those cases when nursing home patients with Alzheimer’s disease or other mentally-debilitating illnesses leave a facility without notice.
“I think we do a wonderful job at what we do. It doesn’t matter how many staff you have, sometimes things like this just happen. Between the staff and the police force, I think we worked very fast to get this man found.”
Staff report by Tony Baughman / EDITION: September 12, 2019