Savannah had a history of wandering. "I tried hard to do all the precautions I could," her mother said. "I knew she was a child who could go. I was trying to stay one step ahead."
On that day, in a matter of moments, Savannah had slipped away to a nearby pond and although her older brother and a neighbor tried to save her, it was too late.
Months later, Martin recalled that painful time. "My husband was deployed and I was uncomfortable with the ponds near our house," she said. "I was looking for a safer place to live."
The day before the accident, Martin had the door alarmed because Savannah was getting up at night. "But I was comfortable during the day that she knew not to cross boundaries. It was simple as that. Kids with autism have routines. I was making noodles and she always waited for noodles. I went to the bathroom and when I got out, she was gone."
Martin said she shared her story to help other parents.
For the Oertels, a factor in their decision to move to Montgomery County, Md., is that it's part of Project Lifesaver. The program provides known wanderers with radio-tracking devices and coordinates with local emergency agencies. Officer Laurie Reyes heads the Montgomery County program, where officers respond to calls about missing children with autism about every other week.
Police quickly arrived at the Oertels' home, using police dogs to search the house. Gwynne requested a helicopter, which can detect signals for three to five miles, but the police said it was too early in the search to employ one.
Luke might not have been saved without the intervention of two Good Samaritans.
A woman in a car spotted Luke on the road in his pajamas, and followed him to a hotel parking lot. She enlisted the hotel security director's help, and they trailed Luke to the Metro station, followed him by foot onto the platform and blocked him from entering a Washington, D.C.-bound train. He recited his phone number for the strangers, and they contacted his mom.
Police still had to get Luke safely into the car. Reyes recounted rescue steps: "We'll have to stop traffic. Mom has to grab his favorite food. We tell her, 'We may have to put him in handcuffs, for his safety.' Mom got it."
Oertel said she was "fine" with the handcuffs -- although she didn't want to see them applied and asked the officers not to use a Taser on her son. By 8 a.m., he was home.
Despite the blistered feet from his escape, Luke has said he wants to do it again.
Autism advocacy groups want wandering incidents to trigger Amber Alerts, but because that system is meant only for abducted children, wanderers don't qualify. A grassroots movement is afoot to implement "Mason Alerts," named in honor of Mason Allen Medlam, who drowned after wandering.
Luke attends a local high school, where he's in a six-year program to learn functional life skills. He continues to plays hockey on a special team.
"My first concern is his safety, keeping him safe," Gwynne said. "That's the number one priority. My second is his happiness. So, we're trying to expose him to all different hobbies to see what he likes. If you don't expose him to it, you'll never know."
AWAARE (Autism Wandering Awareness Alerts Response Education) offers a wealth of resources on wandering.
For more on autism and wandering, see related story.
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