(Traditional tea ceremony before the accident.)
I am drinking my chamomile tea by the wood old-style Chinese tea table and nibbling on charcoal covered peanuts. Our Rotary Group Study Exchange Team is in the mountains in Yu Ling County, Taiwan. We’re at least an hour away from the closest town. It’s around 9pm.
He’s been gone a while and we can’t find him in the hotel.
The 14 people in the hotel, including the hotel owner, wife, and driver split up into search parties to find S..
Justin, the son of one of the Taiwanese Rotarians, and go around the side of the hotel looking for S. in the dark. Our only light is Justin’s cell phone. I feel absurd for using a cell phone as a flashlight but everyone else took the big torch lights from the hotel.
We all come back to the tea room without a clue about S.’s whereabouts.
Where the hell is he?
The hotel owner turns on the videos from the surveillance cameras. We all crowd around his desk and tea table to look at the video. We see that S. jogged down the ramp from the hotel at 20:54.
We all go searching in the village.
We yell his name into the dark alongside the road. We yell into the ravine.
We ask the villagers singing karaoke in an apartment if they’ve seen a lone white guy wandering around.
We’ve lost a team member in the middle of nowhere at night, in the mountains. What are we going to do.
Someone calls the police and the police say they are too far away to help.
Per my request, Claire calls from her cell phone and tells the police that there is a lost foreigner and that they need to come soon or else it might get into the media that a foreigner is lost in the woods with no police help for the search party. Sometime between 10 and 11pm, the police chief arrives quickly. The emergency response team, made up of volunteer villagers, immediately come in their trucks. We flag them down alongside the road and explain the situation. Dressed in overalls and red pants, they drive with us on the roads. We yell “S.! S.” from the windows.
One of the villagers asks me to go make an announcement on the village’s loudspeaker system to alert S. that we have a search party looking for him.
In Russian and English, I say, “S., we are looking for you. Make a noise, yell, or make a fire. We need to find you.” I repeat this in both languages several times.
We continue walking and driving along the road looking for him.
The police chief and his colleagues knock on the doors of the villagers, wake them up and ask if they’ve seen a wandering white man.
Beyond the little village, it’s pitch black. Did S. go wandering off in total darkness? S. must be completely lost by now.
No one panics but we are all shocked. The evening was going very well, we were enjoying our tea and then this happened.
We comb as much of the forest that we can safely trek with just the flashlights and big torch lights of the emergency response team. We continue shouting his name.
At 1:30am, the police call off the search until the morning. Claire and I look at each other in distress. Is this really happening?
I feel like I am in a horror movie. This is the worst night of my life.
Everyone else “tries” to go to sleep. Claire and I go with the hotel owner for another drive. We sit on opposite sides of the car and shout out Sergei’s name to the different sides of the street.
It’s very cold outside. I am wearing my long sleeved shirt, sweater, jacket, gloves and wool hat. He left in just a light jacket. He must be freezing. If he fell, can he survive the cold night? He is a former Marine, maybe he can rub some sticks together and make a fire to keep him warm.
My room is cold. S’s room is in front of mine. The door is open and the light is on.
I can’t sleep. I put on two covers and it’s still too cold. Every time I hear a noise, I wake up thinking that S has come back. I open my door and look down the corridor, only to find Claire doing the same thing. The second time we are both awakened by a strange noise of someone trying to force open the outside door to our hallway, we go downstairs to the hotel owner’s room. We wake him up explaining the strange sound we heard. He puts on his sweater and shoes and walks around the hotel with us. Nothing.
I am too scared and cold to sleep in my room and go to Claire’s room and sleep on the other bed in her room.
Around 6:30 am, we wake up and talk to the others. Nothing.
The police officer takes me to the apartment of the man who owns the public announcement system and I slowly repeat the call to Sergei in both languages. After multiple announcements, the police officer signals me to stop.
We sit with Claire, Lloyd and Larry on the terrace of the hotel thinking about what to do. I think S. is dead, but I don’t say anything to anyone.
Later on, I find out that the Rotary District Governor’s wife in Chiayi found out about Sergei being missing. She went to her Catholic Church to pray for him to be found. The Rotary organizer of our trip to the mountains went to a Buddhist temple to pray. One of my team members, Lloyd prayed to find S. alive.
Along with one of the villagers, Lloyd walks along a path, the same one Larry had walked on earlier. He yells out S’s name and hears a person mumbling. He almost steps on some bamboo sticks to walk closer to the ravine and the villager stops him and points that if he steps on the bamboo, he will fall into the ravine, a 22 meter drop. The villager directs to an alternate, safe route to walk to the bottom of the ravine.
Lloyd finds Sergei covered in blood and mumbling. He yells to the villager that he found S. The villager runs up to the village to call the police and ambulance. For about 45 minutes, Lloyd holds Sergei’s head in his arms, the blood dripping onto his jacket. He asks him his name and asks him to tell him how many fingers he is holding up. S. responds with the correct amount. He’s at least somewhat lucid.
The ambulance arrives, covers him in blankets and puts him on the stretcher. The media tags alongside the ambulance and takes photos and videos of the rescue. His blood temperature is 32C (89.6F).
Claire and I arrive at the site when the ambulance medics are putting S into the ambulance. He’s pale. Blood is all over his face. Blood is dripping out of his ear. He looks horrible. At least he’s alive.
Lloyd and Larry go inside the ambulance along the twist and turns of the mountainous road. After an hour, they arrive at the nearest emergency room in Douliou. Claire, the others and I follow suit in the minibus.
We arrive at the Douliou Emergency room and find out that his CT scan points to a brain hemorrhage. He broke his leg. He fractured his spine. He’s covered in an electric blanket. Hot lamps are warming him up. He wants water. We can only give him water swabs to wet his lips and to suck on. He recognizes us. As I sit next to him and move my hand next to his, he presses my hand to hold it. He knows who I am.
We have to go to the big hospital in Tainan City for further evaluation by the neurosurgeon. That means a 1.5 hour ambulance ride. Lloyd and I board the ambulance and Claire and Larry stay in Douliou. The ambulance ride was a show of the danger of driving in Taiwan. I was in the front seat and Lloyd was in the back next to S and the EMT. With the ambulance sirens going off all the time, many drivers didn’t heed the emergency call of the ambulance. The driver crept up right behind cars before the unsuspecting drivers realized that they needed to switch lanes. What a disaster! The same happened to me when I was in Russia but my trip to the hospital was fairly short, about 15 minutes. Here, we were in the car for about 1.5 hours!
We arrive at the hospital without S’s passport and register him with our minimal Chinese and the minimal English of the registration staff.
He lays in the triage room while many doctors come to see him. His body is wired to the vital signs machine. I look at the vital signs machine like a complete idiot, not understanding any of the graphs. When the machine makes a noise because one of S’s signs is abnormal, I quickly call the attention of a neighboring doctor or nurse. I sing some refrains from a Russian song he and I both like, Mahnati Shmel.
Two Rotarians, Lloyd and I walk with the hospital orderly as he takes him to his new CT scan and XRays. We have to help move him from his hospital stretcher to the Xray and CT machines. He groans as we move his broken leg. I have never participated in such a delicate transport before.
We stand by his bed in the triage room. My legs are super exhausted. I am tired. The adrenaline is running out. I barely slept last night. I take Lloyd’s Blackberry, almost out of battery power, and call our US insurance company and file the initial report of the accident.
Rotarian Sky takes me to his house to go to sleep. I don’t have any clothes with me, not even a toothbrush. Sky’s wife lends me some clothes to sleep in and gives me a toothbrush.
The next day, Sky drives me to the hospital to replace Lloyd, who spent the whole night with S in his hospital room. We spend the next five days taking 12 hour shifts to be with S at the hospital.
The worst night of my life transforms into an experience I will never forget. I become the most responsible I have ever been for the life of another person.