By Jason Wright
There are at least three alternate headlines that could have told the story of 2-year-old Jakob Heintzelman. Each would have grabbed the reader right by the heart:
"2-year-old boy drowns in Virginia's Shenandoah River"
"Body of 2-year-old boy recovered near George Washington National Forest"
"2-year-old boy abducted -- Amber Alert issued"
Because of angels -- both unseen and in the flesh-- Jakob and his Labrador retriever, Chance, are alive today. In the end, those sensational, gut-wrenching headlines, no matter how likely they once seemed when the story began, never had a chance.
The improbable adventure started in the early evening of Sept. 24 when young Jakob and Chance successfully navigated a locked screen door and vanished in the thick woods outside their home on the banks of the Shenandoah River near Woodstock. Chance -- the family's 1-year-old rescue dog they discovered last year in a cardboard box near death on the streets of Nashville -- was healthy, energetic and always game for adventure with his best friend. Find one and the other is always right behind.
Brandi Mumaw realized they were missing and called frantically for her son Jakob and the dog. She ran outside and in, then back out again. When neither responded, with darkness soon to drape their property, Brandi called 911.
Brandi and her family, including her parents Billy Mumaw and Heidi Phelps, learned more in the next 10 hours than she ever imagined possible. It was a crash course in human nature, doubt, the power of prayer and of faith. She discovered that every one us, even the complete stranger, has angelic qualities.
Within minutes of the initial call, deputies converged on her home and Brandi watched the chaos unfold from her front porch. Soon the county sheriff, Tim Carter, arrived on scene and assured her that his team and their search and rescue experts knew precisely what they were doing. They'd trained countless hours for this very moment and what she was seeing might have looked chaotic, but it was masterfully controlled.
As the massive search began, Sheriff Carter led a prayer that must have rung from the humble riverbanks all the way to heaven. He prayed for Brandi, for Chance and for Jakob -- each by name. It was a call to God for both comfort and hands. Even more, it was a request for angels.
An Amber Alert was issued and by the blessing of social media, volunteers -- most of them strangers to the family -- began arriving by the dozens. They came with boats to search the river, they came with climbing gear to search the rocky mountain line, and they came with food, water and words embedded with faith. By the end of the evening, one deputy estimated there were more than 400 total volunteers and professionals engaged in the search.
Brandi and two deputy chaplains -- men of God who fueled the family's hope as the temperatures dropped and the statistics started to turn against them -- spent most of the night outside watching the flashlights in the dark and listening to the searchers call out to Jakob and Chance. It wasn't until early morning when her father convinced her to go inside their cozy home.
As midnight passed, then 1 a.m. and 2 a.m., the internal questions were unavoidable. "Had he been taken? Why wasn't Chance responding to calls? Were they still together? Had they been drawn to the water, which is so often the case? Were they afraid? Cold? Crying?"
Meanwhile, Master Deputy Chris Snyder and his bloodhound, Judge, from nearby Fauquier County, had also arrived to join the search. Snyder had Judge quickly sniff Jakob's car seat and the two set off into the chilly night.
Experts in such cases draw models that suggest the direction a wandering child might take. The most likely scenario took the boy and his dog toward the nearby river, an outcome that would have almost certainly ended Jakob's story quite differently. Brandi had watched boats and rescuers in wet suits come and go all night and knew if they were to make a discovery, the headline would be tragic. In fact, Brandi knew that Snyder and his bloodhound had been involved in a case earlier this year when a young toddler lost his life in a river.
Privately, deputies began to theorize how an abduction might have taken place, how the remote rural road would have provided opportunity for someone with sinister motives.
Publicly, Jakob's family, led by his faithful mother, maintained that the story would not end with such a tragic headline.
All across the massive search area, the army of volunteers prayed, too. They prayed alone and in groups. They prayed silently and out loud. They prayed by text and social media.
At 4 a.m., scanner crackled with the sound of static and then the voice of a deputy. "The boy's been found."
The next sound was the only voice that mattered. Above the crackles and pops, Brandi heard one simple word: "Mommy."
A good friend of mine, a deputy on the scene that night, said it was a powerful moment. "I'll never forget it for the rest of my life."
Brandi and her family were quickly loaded into trucks and driven to meet Jakob near the discovery point, roughly half a mile from home in the thick, dense woods. It appeared Chance had never left his side and the two shivered in the 40-degree air. "Man's best friend" proven true, once again.
Jakob was scratched and cold and missing one of his favorite shoes, but the hospital gave him a quick green light to return home and by 6 a.m. -- their adventure was over.
A few days later, I was honored to sit with Brandi and Jakob at their kitchen table. Brandi noted how even days later, Chance was often locating Jakob in the house, giving him a nudge and a sniff, and making sure he was close. Just because it was an adventure doesn't mean either wants to repeat it.
Together we recognized the miracle of the moment -- these stories don't always turn out this way. Instead of asking, "How will you remember your son?" I asked what his safe return had taught her.
Along with her family, they learned that there is always someone looking over us. Their faces, though unseen in this life, just might be familiar in the next.
When Brandi reported that all of her grandparents had died, I asked whether she believed they might have been aware of what unfolded that night. Not just aware, she believes, "They were there. They must have been." It's inconceivable to every member of the family that Jakob and Chance were ever without angelic guidance.
In fact, Brandi's mother told me she spoke to her parents on the other side of the veil near the river. "Please watch over him," she whispered.
Though they'd never really forgotten, the entire family was reminded how the Lord ministers to us through others. In our greatest hours of need, God's hands become our hands when we reach out to lift one another.
In the immediate aftermath of the voice that shot round the county, the family offered a prayer in the living room Jakob escaped from more than 10 hours earlier. They thanked God for volunteers, for law enforcement expertise, for angels of all shapes and sizes, and for headlines that remind us just how close heaven really is.
"Aided by angels, 2-year-old boy and his dog survive night in Virginia forest"
Jason F. Wright is a New York Times best-selling author of 10 books, including "Christmas Jars," "The Wednesday Letters" and "The 13th Day of Christmas." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or jasonfwright.com.