Rochester resident Sharon Lee Leaming, 70, was missing, and law enforcement officers had just one major clue to go on: a cell phone tower ping for Leaming’s phone.
Search teams that included members of the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office, Grays Harbor Sheriff’s Office, and state Department of Natural Resources, as well as Leaming’s family members and friends and even a few strangers volunteered to look along roadsides and in the woods near that ping.
“It gave a general area,” said Leaming’s nephew Bob Stewart of Lacey. “But it was a huge area and included Capitol Forest.”
On Sunday afternoon, Stewart decided to walk along some railroad tracks and a stretch of Highway 12 in Grays Harbor County near Oakville. Searchers already had driven past the area near mile marker 33 several times, but Stewart was hoping that he’d see more if he walked the route.
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“I found one little spot where I could barely see some brush that was sort of bent down,” he recalls.
When he looked closer, he noticed a nearby tree missing some bark.
Stewart called his cousin and told him that he was going to check it out. As he made his way down the steep terrain, toward the bushes, Stewart said he began to hear someone yelling. But trees, highway noise and echoes distorted the voice.
“Is that lady yelling at a dog?” he wondered. “Or is she yelling at her kids?”
Stewart said it took a few minutes before he recognized the woman’s voice as his aunt’s. At that point, he couldn’t see her car, but he knew it must be further down the embankment.
Stewart said he got back on the phone, and told his cousin to bring a rope.
“I said, ‘Oh my God, I found her — she’s here, come right away,’” Stewart said.
Leaming had been trapped in her vehicle for five days, but nobody even knew she was missing for the first two days, Stewart said. She had returned home early from North Cove on the coast, where she and her sister were getting ready for a family campout.
“The reason she had left the beach is because she had the wrong tent,” Stewart said. “She was returning home to get the right tent. It was all over a stupid tent.”
On her way home, Leaming started feeling “funny,” and her eyes felt really heavy, so she pulled over. She started feeling better, so she began driving again. But then her right eye closed.
“She thinks she may have blacked out or something,” Stewart said. “She remembers hearing a couple of big bangs, bumping around and then (she) opened her eyes and she was looking at some trees.”
Leaming’s daughter Tammie Pennypacker told KING-5 News that her mother had felt sleepy and dizzy, and that part of her face felt like it dragged down.
“As she was flying (down the embankment), my mom said all she could think was, ‘God, don’t let this be the day that I die,’ ” Pennypacker said.
During the crash, Leaming’s cell phone got lodged in the car’s dash.
“She could see the phone, but she couldn’t pull it out,” Stewart said. “She said every time her phone rang, it gave her hope. She knew people were looking for her.”
Stewart said his aunt had bottled water, bananas and Pop-Tarts in her car.
“She didn’t eat the Pop-Tarts, though,” he said. “She thought she’d choke on them.”
During the first couple of days, she honked the car’s horn. Then its battery went dead.
Leaming said she also regularly yelled out her car window. In fact, she hadn’t seen her nephew as he approached her car. She was just yelling for help, like she had been for days.
“When I climbed over to the car, she said, ‘I’ve been waiting for you guys to find me for five days,’” Stewart said. “I said, ‘Yeah, I know. We’ve been looking for you.’ ”
With temperatures climbing into the 80s and 90s, Stewart said he didn’t expect to find his aunt in such good shape.
“She was in a heavily wooded area, covered in some brush, so she was in the shade, which was good for her, but bad for us,” he said. “Even if you knew where the car was, you could not see it.”
Once they got her out of the car, rescuers carried Leaming down a hill, through some trees, over a ditch, up a hill, through a field and over a barbed wire fence, Stewart said.
She was taken to St. Joseph Medical Center in Tacoma.
“She’s doing very, very well, actually,” Stewart said. “She’s alert. She’s joking around. She has a broken foot and a lot of bruises.”
By Monday afternoon, Stewart said his aunt was in “amazing condition,” and was visiting with her children, grandchildren, sisters and other family members.
“We really want to thank the law enforcement and everybody — they were fantastic,” Stewart said. “They really tried to do what they could. There really wasn’t much to go on.”