Illustration: Mark Smith
“Help. In Danger. Call Police.”
In August 2018, Aimee Spevak rented a cabin in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains to get away from the New York City heat. Like many people who can never truly break away from work, Spevak, a freelance medical writer, found herself stuck inside on a lovely summer day, finishing an assignment. In a moment of procrastination, she checked her Facebook news feed and was delighted to see a post from her friend Michael Lythcott.
Lythcott was an intrepid traveller. In fact, he and Spevak had trekked through Nepal together a few years earlier. Spevak knew he was at that moment in Bali, and she was eager to hear about his experience. But then she read the post. Rather than beautiful travel photos or a detailed narrative of Lythcott’s journey, there was a stark plea: “Help. In danger. Call police.”
Lythcott, a 40-year-old web developer from the United States, had landed in Bali to meet his friend Stacey Eno, 27, just the day before. Excited for their adventure, the two Americans had rented a scooter on the outskirts of Ubud and driven into town, where they stayed late into the night doing what they both loved: chatting with strangers from all over the world.
It was well past 2 a.m. and nearly pitch-dark when they hopped back on the scooter and headed for their hotel. Lythcott had placed his iPhone in the pouch of the scooter and was using it to navigate. As they climbed a hill past the jungle, he glanced down at the GPS and back up at the road—and saw a curve ahead. Deciding not to try the bend, Lythcott hit the brakes—but his bike didn’t stop.
He awoke sometime later to the babble of water nearby. He was flat on his back on a steep slope, surrounded by vegetation. The jungle. He tried to sit up, but his body wouldn’t cooperate. What happened? he wondered. Where am I? Then it came to him. Bali. But why am I in the jungle? He strained to think, but his mind was a fog.
Oh man, I was in a scooter accident, he thought. That much came back to him, but nothing more. Nothing about flying 18 metres through the air down a ravine, nothing that explained the blood he could taste and the dull pain he felt all through his body.
He took stock. His glasses were gone. The scooter was gone, and with it his cell phone. His left wrist and torso were smashed up badly, as was his neck. Finally he called out to his companion. “Stacey! Stacey, where are you?” His voice came out surprisingly quiet. (He’d learn later that both his lungs had collapsed.)
“I’m right here.”
Eno was only a few feet away. Lythcott dragged himself through the darkness until he was beside her.
“I don’t know what’s going on,” she said. “Why are we in the woods?”
“We were in an accident. Can you move?”
“Stacey, I need you to get up and walk and get us help.”
This alarmed Lythcott. No one knew they were there. His neck was probably broken. We might die here, he thought. Making matters worse, he had begun slowly sliding down the wet jungle floor past thick-trunked trees.
“I’m scared,” Eno said. She sounded farther and farther away. At last, Lythcott came to rest in a tiny depression on the hillside, where he could grasp a tree root. There, in his nook, an eerie calm came over him. If he was going to die, let it be like this, in a peaceful place. Let him close his eyes and allow it to take him over.
No, he scolded himself. Stop thinking that way. You have to save Stacey.
If only he hadn’t lost his phone in the wreck. Then he remembered he had a second phone, the one with his American SIM card he used for contacting people in the United States. He searched his jacket pocket—and there it was! He turned off airplane mode and activated international data roaming, balancing the phone on his chest. Battery charge: 42 per cent.
Lythcott tried calling 911. When that didn’t work, he noticed a few of the apps he’d left open on the phone, including Facebook. An idea struck. Taking great care not to let the blood-slick phone tumble down the dark ravine, he navigated to his homepage and typed away. Less than two minutes later, Spevak saw the post.
At first, Spevak had no idea what to do. She didn’t even know where in Bali her friend was. Then she remembered that Facebook has a function that allows you to call your friends. She gave it a try. To her surprise, Lythcott picked up.
“Aimee,” he said, “I’m in the woods. I don’t know where I am. I don’t know what’s happening.”
“Okay,” Spevak said. “Can you send me your location? I’m going to call somebody, and then we’ll get you out of there.”
After they hung up, Lythcott sent his GPS coordinates on a map using Facebook’s pin drop function. Now one person in the world knew where he was.
Spevak wasn’t sure whom to call or how to proceed, so she decided to enlist the help of Lythcott’s vast circle of friends from around the globe. She posted a screenshot of the pin drop to the Facebook comment thread and watched nervously as every few seconds another friend jumped into the conversation.
“Mikey!! ARE YOU OKAY???”
“Mikey, what police do we call???”
“Do you know what to do here?”
A friend named Ricardo Mendes, in Portugal, proposed Lythcott should activate Apple’s emergency SOS call. He wrote, “PRESS THE OFF BUTTON OF YOUR IPHONE 5 TIMES QUICKLY.”
Kaitlin Haggard, a friend in Las Vegas, Nev., found all the local police numbers by district and shared them.
Misty McKenzie-Hill, in Toronto: “Please, please let him be okay.”
Emilie Stein, in Woodbridge, Va.: “Dude, I will fly out tonight and come get you if you need.”
Meanwhile, Eno continued to struggle. She was trying to scream for help, but she was too weak and each time it came out like a whimper. She was in and out of consciousness, confused and numb. The bones in her face had been shattered. Something had slammed into her mouth during the crash, slicing her tongue and loosening teeth.
“Stacey,” Lythcott said. “I’m trying to get help.”
Why aren’t either of us getting up? Eno wondered. She tried to move her legs but her body was in shock, and she couldn’t get them underneath her. Any movement made her feel as if she might fall down the steep incline to whatever dangers lay below. She dug her fingernails into the soil to avoid slipping and waited for the help that Lythcott hoped was on the way.
Among those glued to Lythcott’s rapidly moving Facebook feed was Josh Hofer, a long-time friend who was at his office in Morrisville, N.C. Like Spevak, he was stunned when he first read Lythcott’s post, then was relieved to see the pin drop Spevak had posted. But his enthusiasm quickly waned: the location was frustratingly vague. He decided to fiddle with it and opened up the pin drop on his phone instead of on his computer. Instantly it showed greater detail. He took a screenshot and sent it to a U.S. consulate in Indonesia via email.
In Los Angeles, Paul Rocha was watching the thread with interest. Lythcott had mustered sufficient consciousness to let commenters know that he could hear running water nearby. Using Spevak’s screenshots, plus Lythcott’s detail about the flowing water, Rocha, a self-professed map nerd, created a new map of his own, with a circle indicating the likeliest search area. Then he posted his update.
A more precise picture of the situation was emerging: Lythcott and Eno were outside of Ubud in the jungle near a place called Sweet Waterfall. On the thread, friends from all over the world had begun posting contact information for police, hospitals and ambulance services in Bali, and many of them were bombarding those numbers with calls. Someone posted the number for the U.S. consulate in Indonesia.
In Surabaya, Indonesia, one island away from Bali, Christine Getzler Vaughan, who was the public affairs officer at the U.S. consulate general at the time, was monitoring the night-duty emergency phone when it began to ring. “My friend posted on Facebook that he’s hurt and needs help,” the caller said.
Getzler Vaughan grabbed her notebook. “What’s his name?” she asked. “What’s his last known location?” The caller supplied as much detail as possible. Seconds after they hung up, the phone rang again: another one of Lythcott’s friends. And so it went for the next two hours.
Getzler Vaughan frantically multi-tasked, working by phone, text and email, receiving and parsing a landslide of information from the Facebook posse: screenshots, maps, tips, phone numbers, Lythcott’s date of birth, his family contacts—all with the aim of sending a physical search party to the correct location. Someone had even alerted the U.S. State Department’s operations center in Washington, D.C.
Getzler Vaughan passed on what she knew to officials in Bali. Around 5:30 a.m., less than an hour after his Facebook SOS, she texted Lythcott: “Someone from our office in Bali has the info your friends have sent us.”
“Can’t move,” he typed back. Then he added: “6 perrxcntt batt.”
Tempers were beginning to fray on Lythcott’s feed. His well-intentioned friends were clogging the thread by voicing concern or requesting updates. In so doing, they were burying important information Balinese authorities would need if they were to rescue him and Eno.
“For Christ’s sake, EVERYONE STOP POSTING,” one poster snapped. “Unless you have an update we need this thread to STOP NOW.”
Another took exception: “Dude. Please stop yelling.” The reply: “Our friend is in serious trouble. I’ll yell my face off if that helps get a point across.”
Meanwhile, Eno and Lythcott lay bleeding in the ravine.
“Try to hang on,” Lythcott said. “Help is coming.”
He had no idea. His phone battery had died. Now they were truly all alone.
About three hours after the crash, Lythcott was drifting in and out of consciousness when he heard the sound of brush rustling. He tensed up. Bali has snakes—cobras and pythons—and he wasn’t exactly in a condition to defend himself. He heard voices. A search party!
Speaking English, four rescuers carefully cradled Lythcott’s neck as they carried him up to a flatbed truck and placed him beside Eno in the cargo area. Her hair was soaked and matted with blood and grime. More blood covered her torso and legs. Lythcott barely recognized her.
At 8:14 a.m.—four hours after Lythcott posted his plea for help—Caitlin from Prague, who had been regularly checking with the hospital in Ubud for Lythcott’s arrival, posted: “UPDATE—HE IS OKAY AND IN THE HOSPITAL!”
Friends from Portland to Prague, Seattle to Sydney, breathed a collective sigh of relief. Their sentiments could be summed up by a post from a friend named Jay Holmes: “Thank you, that’s what we all needed to hear.”
Eno spent seven days at a hospital in Bali before returning to her teaching job in South Korea. She had suffered a fractured wrist, shattered cheekbones, severe injuries to her mouth and tongue, and a badly broken nose. Lythcott’s condition was worse: internal bleeding, collapsed lungs, a broken wrist, cracked ribs, an injured neck, a fractured skull, a perforated bowel and a lacerated liver. But three weeks after the crash, he was out of hospital and recuperating at his sister’s house in Atlanta. Officials still aren’t sure what caused the crash. Since Lythcott had been sober and driving carefully, the leading theory is that the pair was affected by a powerful earthquake that hit while they were driving.
The rescue was miraculous, it also illustrated an important lesson. As Georgia Chapman Costa, one of Lythcott’s Facebook friends, put it on the thread that saved Lythcott and Eno: “When people come together, wonderful things happen.”
Next, find out how 70 strangers rescued two boys from a riptide.