A Washington state drone pilot is putting a new twist on missing person searches by asking volunteers to examine images that may offer digital evidence of a hiker who vanished four weeks ago today.
The challenge, until recently, was finding enough manpower to scour thousands of images that could hold clues to the whereabouts of the 28-year-old woman, who was last seen on Vesper Peak in Snohomish County on Aug. 1. The solution: Crowdsourcing an army of volunteers online to examine each pixel in Monchak’s drone images.
“The online aspect of this is huge,” Monchak, 39, told HuffPost. “I couldn’t do it alone. After you look through a couple hundred images, your eyes get pretty tired, so these people are a great help. They are finding things and notifying us of unusual objects. It just proves we can all work together on the same project from anywhere.”
The drone allows Monchak to target areas that haven’t been covered by ground searchers or would be exceptionally dangerous to explore on foot.
It’s unclear whether the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, which suspended its own search effort on Aug. 23, is aware of the crowdsourcing effort. The agency did not respond to a request for a comment on Wednesday.
The project is similar to a crowdsourcing campaign started after the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. The plane, which was carrying more than 200 people from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, vanished on March 8, 2014. It is presumed to have crashed in the far southern Indian Ocean.
More than 2 million people examined satellite images of suspected crash locations captured by Colorado-based satellite operator DigitalGlobe. While it’s been reported that some debris has washed ashore in various places, the plane has yet to be found.
Monchak, a former Army soldier who’s typically hired to photograph weddings and real estate, said he’s spent nearly three weeks surveying the mountain. He estimates he’s covered approximately 23 miles of terrain so far.
“I hike up the mountain and can fly out about 3 to 4 miles from where I am standing,” he said. “I can easily cover more area in a day than 100 searchers can, and it’s being done without endangering lives. The drone can cover steep faces of the mountain without having to send someone in on foot, and it can examine crevices without having to have someone rope down them.”
The drone recently captured an image of a jacket in an area nearly inaccessible to ground searchers. The find, according to the missing woman’s mother, Lisa Sayers, proves the value of having a remote-controlled eye in the sky.
“When it was spotted, we used the GPS coordinates to send people out there to locate it,” Lisa Sayers told HuffPost. “It did not belong to [my daughter], but it shows that our volunteer army is working.”
Sam Sayers, described by her family and friends as an experienced hiker, set out on the morning of Aug. 1 for a solo hike in the North Cascades. According to the sheriff’s office, a group of hikers reported seeing her on her way up Vesper Peak around midmorning. Another hiker told police he saw her the same day at the 6,220-foot summit and watched her head south from there.
Sayers was reported missing after she didn’t show up for a 6 p.m. check-in with her boyfriend. Despite multiple searches, authorities have found no clues about where Sayers went after walking away from Vesper Peak. None of her personal belongings, such as her cellphone or car keys, have been located.
Sayers turned 28 on August 13, roughly two weeks after she disappeared. Her mother describes her daughter as a “warrior” who is more than capable of taking care of herself.
“She’s still alive,” Lisa Sayers said. “I put my trust and hope in God and all the people praying for us and helping us.”
Monchak, who’s been donating his time to the search project, said he decided to get involved because he wanted to help Sayers’ family. She grew up In Girard, Pennsylvania, and he grew up in a borough not far from there, he said.
According to Monchak, anyone can help examine the images, which are hosted online. New images will be added on a regular basis, he said.
Monchak estimates that volunteers numbering in the hundreds have spent countless unpaid hours looking at the drone images. He said some volunteers are getting more technical, using photo software to identify specific colors ― namely, items Sayers had with her at the time of her disappearance.
“We know that Sam had gray on and we also know she had some [maroon] on,” he said. “There is a gentleman from Wings of Mercy on Facebook who has a program that can match up colors. We just identified a red object and I will be flying directly to that next because it has really piqued my interest.”
A HuffPost report about Sayers on Tuesday recalled the story of a 66-year-old woman who disappeared while hiking along the Appalachian Trail. She had few supplies, yet somehow survived at least 26 days in the wilderness. Her story and similar stories search and rescue teams have shared with Sayers’ family indicate there is a possibility that she could still alive.
“You can’t just disappear,” Lisa Sayers said. “Until there’s proof otherwise, my girl is out there and we are going to find her.”
With time of the essence, Monchak said he’s making a 4-mile hike up the mountain on Wednesday afternoon. In addition to getting a closer look at the unknown red object, he plans to examine crevices for clues. Like Lisa Sayers, he said he’s not going to give up searching.
“I’m going to continue doing this until she’s found,” He said. “We can see a tennis ball from 150 feet up, so if Sam’s out there, we will see her.”
You ― the person reading this story right now ― can help find Sam Sayers by volunteering to examine drone images. Click here for information on how to get started.
Samantha Sayers is a 5-foot-8-inch white woman weighing 125 pounds. She was last seen wearing dark gray pants and a maroon hoodie. She had two hiking poles, a blue backpack, a beige sun hat and a dark gray wool beanie.
Anyone with any information should call the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office at 425-388-3808 or 425-388-3523.