BRUNSWICK — For more than three days, Ann Baribeau survived alone, stranded in her car off a rural road hours from home. She rationed a french fry and some jelly beans she found in her vehicle, and she caught rainwater by hanging a plastic bag out the car window.
Today marks exactly 18 years since searchers found the Brunswick woman, after an intensive Easter weekend quest that fundamentally altered the way rescue operations have been conducted in Maine ever since.
“She completely changed search and rescue for the better,” recalled Gareth Anderson of Harpswell, who was the state’s search-and-rescue coordinator at the time. “In a roundabout way, she’s helped a lot of people.”
At around 3:30 p.m., Friday, April 9, 1993, Baribeau — who battles cerebral palsy and needs help walking — set off from Brunswick in her white Dodge Omni. She was due to appear at the Jackman home of her brother, Dennis, a few hours later. She never showed up.
“Dennis called at about 9 o’clock to say she hadn’t arrived,” said Baribeau’s other brother, David. “Our concern mounted by the hour. Dennis and his wife did everything they could do in terms of calling the authorities and trying to get a search party out to look for her.”
But the brothers both said they received lukewarm reactions from law enforcement officials they contacted at the time. The lack of urgency came, they said, from the fact that their sister was considered to be “missing” and not “lost.”
“At that time in the state of Maine, you were either ‘missing’ or ‘lost,’” David Baribeau recalled. “If you were considered ‘missing,’ they didn’t immediately send out a search party.”
The difference in terms seems slight, but to police or rescue teams, it was not.
A “missing” person’s family members and friends don’t know where he or she is — but that person himself or herself may know. For instance, a man who drives off for an unannounced vacation out of state might be considered “missing” because he didn’t tell friends where he was going, but he’s not “lost” because he knows where he is and how to get home.
Ann Baribeau drove off that Friday afternoon on her own volition. Strictly speaking, she was “missing.” David and Dennis Baribeau said law enforcement officers at the time seemed content to wait and see if she would turn up, as though she had chosen to go somewhere other than Dennis’ house and she would check back in when she decided she was ready.
But because of her medical condition, Ann’s family quickly realized she must be “lost.”
“We always knew someone would fall through that crack, and Ann was that person,” said Anderson. “She was a ‘missing’ person who I knew was ‘lost.’”
Heading up Route 201, Baribeau mistakenly followed a split in the road to Route 201A, then was further waylaid when she veered onto Route 16 near Embden. Just a few more miles down 201A at that point, and she would have reconnected with 201 and been well on her way to Dennis’ house.
Route 16 and Route 201 in that area are nearly parallel roads on opposite sides of the Kennebec River. Although a small distance separates them on a map, there’s a world of difference between the two roads. While Route 201 winds its way along the more populated eastern side of the river into towns like Bingham, Route 16 at the time disappeared into mud and forest.
“(Route 16) turns into nothing,” Anderson said. “The only thing up there were loggers and really serious hunters. On Easter weekend, the roads are still bad and it’s cold up in that country.”
Ann Baribeau, who was 50 at the time, recalled that she eventually realized she’d gotten sidetracked.
“I tried to turn around in the dirt road,” she said.
But the soft, wet surface gave way under her spinning tires. She was just off the road somewhere near Rowe Pond, not moving an inch.
“She attempted to make a little K-turn or a U-turn, and she got stuck,” David Baribeau said. “Being in the wilderness and being disabled, being unable to build a fire or any of those survival techniques, she wasn’t able to get out and do what another person might have been able to do.”
As her family fought to spur police and rescuers to launch a search for her, Ann was left to sustain her own life for as long as she could, with no idea when — or if — help would arrive. It was in that scenario in which Ann’s mental strength proved much more important than her physical strength.
“I’ve seen strapping men go completely bonkers in that same situation,” Anderson said. “No matter who you are and how strong you are, you’ll eventually be unstrung and want to give up, facing hopelessness and being alone. And Ann, being disabled, it must have been compounded. It was unthinkable that she would have been able to walk out of there.”
But she kept her wits about her. She found small morsels of food and ate them sparingly. She only turned on her car engine occasionally to reheat the air and listen to a few minutes of the radio, just to hear another voice.
“I ate one jelly bean in the morning and one at night,” Ann Baribeau recalled. “I ate some toothpaste I had with me. I used a plastic sandwich bag and I rolled it up in the window to collect rain water.”
She also handwrote a last will and testament, and folded it into a book she had in the car.
‘A very frustrating time’
On the Saturday after Ann Baribeau went missing, family members and friends drove the roads they thought she would have taken, and contacted media outlets to spread the word about her disappearance. Her brothers said they struggled to convince state and local authorities about the seriousness of the case.
“We knew she wasn’t just going to turn up on her own, because we knew she was a responsible person and something had gone wrong,” David said. “But everybody sat and waited. That was, for us, a very frustrating time because it didn’t seem that anybody had this as a priority anywhere in the system.”
Anderson agreed to visit the Baribeaus in Brunswick on Easter Sunday. He said the family inspired him to work off the clock that day, calling in rescue crews he trusted to take part in an unofficial — but intensive — search.
Anderson contacted the Bolduc family in Skowhegan, whom he knew from their participation in the state search-and-rescue community, and asked to use their garage as a command post.
“They said, ‘No,’ and they insisted I use the house,” he recalled, and described the way rescuers rallied on their off day. When a Skowhegan police report emerged that a woman matching Ann Baribeau’s description had stopped at a home in Embden looking for directions, Anderson said it confirmed his suspicion that she got lost on the western side of the river.
Rescuers began to focus their attention on Route 201A and Route 16, but as Easter day turned into Easter night, Ann Baribeau still had not been found.
“Knowing she’d been there all that time, we knew time was critical,” Anderson said.
On Monday when the rescue effort went from an unofficial surge to an official state search, Anderson was due to be replaced as its coordinator. The Baribeau family protested the change, and David Baribeau said he took his complaint Monday all the way up to the state commissioner of public safety at the time.
“This was getting serious,” Anderson recalled. “Her legs were swelling, she was hallucinating and she was getting seriously dehydrated. Anybody can become despondent and hopeless when they’re confined to a small space with no human contact.”
As David Baribeau was finally getting assurances in Augusta from the commissioner that his concerns were being taken into consideration, game wardens Al Later and Daryl Gordon — who died in a plane crash late last month — came upon Ann Baribeau’s car.
It was approximately 3:30 p.m. on Monday, April 12. She had been stuck off the road and alone for about three days. Her mind had started to play tricks on her at that point, and she said she initially wasn’t sure if the sight of the wardens was just another mirage.
“I had to touch them to know they were real,” Ann recalled.
“There’s a lesson in this for anybody who gets in a jam and needs to survive,” Anderson said. “Ann did the right thing. She took care of herself.”
There was a lesson for state rescuers, too, Anderson said.
“We had a meeting and said, ‘This can never happen again,’” he said. “She dropped through the cracks between ‘missing’ and ‘lost.’”
Anderson said the case of Ann Baribeau caused state rescuers to implement a case-by-case ranking system — considering a person’s state of mind and medical condition, among other things — to determine the urgency of launching a search effort.
“After Ann Baribeau, we always send a supervisor in addition to a warden and they decide, ‘Is this indeed a missing person, or a lost person?’” Anderson said. “Ann would have been up at a (top ranking of) 5, but that process didn’t happen at the time.”
As David Baribeau recalled, thanks to his sister, that important change in search procedures came as a result of a successful search instead of a tragedy.
“She did everything right,” David said. “This is how she lives her life. She’s always been an inspiration to all of us, and she was just doing what she had always done.”