Dan Haus was at work when he got the panicked call Tuesday afternoon — his 6-year-old son had gone out to play with their dog and disappeared.
“He was nowhere to be found,” Haus recalled Wednesday, bleary-eyed after long, dark hours of searching the thick woods and cornfields around his rural Sherburne County home.
Panic, fear and “every emotion” set in, but he pushed the worst thoughts away and focused. “I’m going to find him,” he told himself over and over again as he scoured every square inch of ground near his home, calling out Ethan’s name until his voice was strained. Remington, his trusty hunting dog, also did not respond to his calls.
Ethan and his fifth- and sixth-grade brothers had gotten off the school bus at the end of their driveway. The neighbors’ dog greeted them and waited for the boys to let Remington out. As his brothers got an afternoon snack ready, Ethan went outside to play with the dogs.
Then the kindergartner, who had never wandered past the boundaries of the cut lawn on the family’s 20 acres, disappeared.
In the hours that followed, dozens of emergency workers and more than 600 neighbors, friends and strangers from miles around gathered in Palmer Township, a dozen miles southeast of St. Cloud, to search for Ethan. Ten hours into the search, with the help of a stranger operating a drone that uses heat-seeking technology, the lost boy and his Brittany spaniel were found huddled in a cornfield.
“This truly was the epitome of a community caring for its own,” Sherburne County Sheriff Joel Brott said Wednesday.
In the light of day, it was hard for the lively 6-year-old to fully comprehend the fear and eventual overwhelming relief of the adults who searched frantically for him.
After calling 911, Dan Haus searched nearby woods and cornfields in vain. “I didn’t stop running,” he said. Coming back to the house periodically, he was shocked at what he saw.
“When I popped out and could see Hwy. 25, I was shocked to see all the cars and people. There were four buses at the end of our driveway with volunteers getting off,” he said. “It set in how blessed we were, how caring and amazing the community is. People helping people.”
Police officers, firefighters and sheriff’s deputies from across the area also streamed in. A command center was set up and search grids were plotted.
In nearby St. Cloud, it was about 8 p.m. when professional photographer Steve Fines saw the sheriff’s tweet about a missing boy.
“It’s getting cold. It’s dark. And I’m a parent,” said Fines, the father of two daughters. “I had to go.”
He figured he had the perfect tool — a drone with a thermal camera that could use heat-seeking technology to “see” what searchers couldn’t. He’s helped the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources count deer, and last week he went looking for cows that went AWOL. “They broke through a fence,” he said. “You know, they’re worth $8,000 to $10,000 apiece, so you’ve got to find them.”
His thermal camera might be what was needed to spot a child in the dark. “There were a lot of people looking, but it was pitch black,” Fines said. “With a flashlight, you can only see a few feet in front of you.”
The drone also can easily fly over difficult terrain such as thick trees, uncut cornfields and swamps.
Fines drove to the command center and offered his help. They gave him instructions and he launched his drone, searching 15 to 20 acres at a time, once and then again. About 1 a.m., he launched his drone a third time over an uncut cornfield where a searcher on the ground had spotted a footprint in the track set by an irrigator. Fines flew the drone for 40 minutes above the stalks, and then he saw it.
“I came across a heat signature blob that looked different,” he said. “It was a bright, irregular shape. It didn’t look like a deer or a bear.” he said. He circled the drone above it and then dropped it lower.
“At one point, I thought I saw something in the shape of a dog’s head move,” Fines said. “That’s when we got excited.”
The deputy he was paired with relayed the information, and Fines raised the drone 75 feet over the cornfield, its bright, flashing lights serving as a beacon for a ground team of four people to race toward. All the while, Fines watched the heat blobs of the rescue team push their way across the field to where an unhurt but very tired little boy lay in a field, cuddling with his dog.
“I could see the dog get excited and run around, and then one of the men grabbed up the boy,” Fines said, recalling the emotion of that moment. “I know how the parents would feel,” he said, and then trailed off.
He piloted the drone over the search team as it made its way to the waiting ambulance, flew it back to where he was and called it a night.
On Wednesday, a spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office said the county agency now aims to obtain its own such drone by early next year.
‘I just cried a little’
Asked if he felt like a hero, Fines paused and then laughed when his 15-year-old daughter chimed in with a “yes.”
That hero title belongs to a lot of people out there on Tuesday night, he said. “I had the tools and skill set. I flew in that last area because someone on the ground found a footprint. I flew in this area because law enforcement was setting up the grids to search. It wasn’t just me.”
Haus and his family couldn’t be more grateful.
They might not ever know why their 6-year-old son wandered down a path, went into the woods and got lost in a farm field about a mile and a half from their home.
Was he scared? “Yeah,” Ethan said over the phone.
In a conversation with his dad earlier, he confessed, “I just cried a little.” He sat on the ground between corn rows, “crisscross applesauce,” he told his dad. Remington crawled into his lap.
After he was found, he, too, was grateful. “ ‘I can’t believe all these people are out here for me,’ ” he told his dad. “ ‘All these people make my heart happy.’ ”