By Jonathan Edwards
Emilie Brill chased Seamus after the one-year-old Australian shepherd slipped her grasp during their walk, zipped ahead in a "joy run" and got swept away by a normally dormant canal that had been supercharged into a "raging" river by California's record-breaking rainfall.
But even at a sprint, Brill couldn't run as fast as the water carried Seamus. Watching her dog disappear downstream, she didn't know whether she would ever see him again.
Brill, 37, called 911, the start of an hour-long scramble to rescue her pooch - one that would involve an Apple AirTag tracking device, firefighters and a homeless man confused about the barking that suddenly echoed throughout his encampment.
Jan. 16 started out as a day of respite for Brill and other Loma Linda, Calif., residents. For three weeks, an unrelenting series of storms had pummeled California, unleashing 32 trillion gallons of water upon the state and hurricane-force wind gusts that hit 160 mph in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. The storms left millions without power, caused more than a billion dollars in damage and killed at least 20 people, including a five-year-old boy.
In the Brills' household, the punishing weather meant that Seamus, their Australian shepherd who normally requires multiple walks a day, was cooped up at home. Brill and her husband tried to burn off some of his excess energy by giving him chew toys and letting him play in the backyard with his younger sister, a rescue mutt named Topaz. But as the storms continued, Seamus's energy built up.
"The walks are absolutely essential just to take the edge off," Brill said. "He definitely had some cabin fever."
January 16, the first clear day they'd had in a while, gave Brill a chance to leash up the two dogs and get out of the house. When they were over a mile into the walk, Brill was fiddling with Seamus's leash when she lost her grip and he broke free. He bolted ahead for about 10 seconds, wriggled through a hole in a fence and scrambled down a slope toward a concrete basin that is normally dry or, at most, carries a trickle.
"But it was raging, which he had never really seen before," Brill said.
The swift-moving waters carried Seamus downstream. Brill raced down a bike path with Topaz trying to keep pace as she called 911 just before 12:30 p.m. Then she called her husband, who hopped in his car and started driving toward Brill.
He intercepted her where the bike path meets a road. Together, they headed toward a spot where they thought the current might ease up, allowing Seamus to get back to land. That's when Brill got an update from the Apple AirTag affixed to Seamus's collar. The "Find My" app she'd been using to keep tabs on the tracking device was showing he was about a mile downstream from where he'd first plunged into the water. They headed that way.
What Brill didn't know was that Seamus had escaped the water by climbing into a drain pipe at that location. Darrell Smith, a homeless man who'd set up camp on the bike path next to the basin underneath an Interstate 10 overpass, had heard Seamus barking. But as the dog floated down the channel, Smith lost sight of Seamus, and the barking stopped.
Then he spotted him in the drain pipe through a grate - Seamus was some 10 feet below the bike path. He called to the dog to keep him from venturing back into the floodwaters and flagged down the San Bernardino firefighters responding to Brill's 911 call. Firefighters climbed down, pulled Seamus out and drove him to the address on his tag. When no one answered, they called the listed phone number. Brill answered as she and her husband headed toward the last location given by the Find My app - Smith's camp.
Brill said the AirTag's role in finding Seamus was fairly minor. Firefighters were searching for the dog because of her 911 call, and thanks to Smith, they had already found him by the time the tracking device gave Brill and her husband a fix on Seamus's location. But, she added, it did allow her to connect with Smith, something that probably wouldn't have happened if she'd gone straight home to meet the firefighters and a newly rescued Seamus.
And she's glad she did meet him. Even though Brill knew Seamus was safe, she said she was still racked by adrenaline when she first encountered Smith, something he quickly picked up on.
"He just took one look at me, and he just gave me a hug," Brill said.
Brill said she asked Smith whether there was anything she could get him to help him get through the stormy winter. She went to Costco and, based on Smith's request, bought him and others at his camp four queen-size fleece blankets, 20 pairs of socks, sweatshirts, undershirts and nonperishable foods like trail mix, granola bars and protein bars. Then she went home, made a lasagna and delivered that to their camp to ensure they had a hot meal.
Still, she said, it wasn't enough. Brill also started a GoFundMe with a goal of raising $10 000 (about R172 000) to get Smith permanent housing, something he hasn't had in seven years, she said. Brill said she's working with several homelessness agencies on how best to pay for that housing and make sure that any extra money goes to help others experiencing homelessness.
By Monday night, she'd raised more than $7 000 toward her goal.
All of it's a small price to pay for getting a member of her family back.
"He saved Seamus's life," Brill said, "so I just wanted to do more for him."
The Washington Post