On May 19th, I read an obituary in The Telegram that was unremarkable but for one detail.
Lucy Maude Harris, who died May 15th in her 92nd year, asked that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the local cemetery or to search and rescue (SAR).
I didn’t think much more about it until a reader, Barbara Moores, emailed me on May 25: “Are you aware who she is? She’s the little girl who was lost in Trinity Bay in 1936. She was lost 10 nights and 11 days.”
How I had gone through life without ever having heard Lucy Harris’s story was surprising. Because the nature of her survival was so miraculous, so incredible, it made news around the world at the time.
In doing a little digging — thanks, in part, to an excellent article by Jennifer Reaney of the National Search and Rescue Secretariat (NSS) in a 1999 issue of SAR Scene magazine, and an NSS documentary made the same year that was forwarded to me by Rovers Search and Rescue team co-ordinator Harry Blackmore — I learned that Lucy Maude Harris had truly defied the odds.
On March 26, 1936, 10-year-old Lucy and her younger sister, eight-year-old Margie of New Melbourne, Trinity Bay were going trouting after school when they came to a brook runoff that Lucy could jump over but Margie couldn’t. Advising Margie to head home, Lucy continued on but became disoriented in the thick fog and wound up heading further away from home instead of towards it.
When she didn’t turn up for supper, everyone worried, and the next morning men from the area began the search, fanning out in lines to retrace her path. Her parents drew on their staunch religious faith and prayed for her return, but surely even they could have been forgiven if their hopes flagged as the weather worsened and the days dragged on.
As day 10 turned into day 11, some searchers reconciled themselves with the idea that they might retrieve Lucy’s body; that rescue was no longer an option. Yet somehow, after sheltering under a tree with no food or drink — beyond snow — Lucy had survived.
When word reached New Melbourne that she had been found, the church bells rang jubilantly for three hours.
“It was amazing — she was known as the miracle of 1936,” Lucy’s daughter, Sharon Pynn told me. “She survived and I’m here!”
When she didn’t turn up for supper, everyone worried, and the next morning men from the area began the search, fanning out in lines to retrace her path.
Pynn says her mother recalled there were times she could hear searchers calling but was too weak to respond, and how she was comforted by birdsong.
Lucy lost both legs to frostbite and spent 18 months recuperating in St. John’s. The Evening Telegram raised $3,000 to help with her recovery.
Her story was covered extensively, at home and abroad. On April 13, 1936, The Lethbridge Herald in Alberta reported: “Physicians examining … Lucy Harris, lost in the woods for a dozen days, marveled at the physical endurance powers of Newfoundland’s ‘wonder child.’ … Her feet and hands were frozen, and death through starvation was creeping stealthily upon her.”
But death would have to wait a long while to claim Lucy Harris.
Sharon Pynn said there were no artificial limbs available to her mother in those days. “She got fitted for prostheses in her late teens,” she says. “She worked in the sanatorium in occupational therapy, and she used to do a lot of sewing. Her disability didn’t hold her back.”
At an international search and rescue workshop in St. John’s in 1999, Lucy Harris’s story was recounted to searchers from around the world.
“We did the whole conference around Lucy,” recalls Harry Blackmore.
At the celebration of her life on May 19th in Hant’s Harbour, eight pallbearers from SAR were her final escorts.
“It was her wish and that touched us a fair bit,” Blackmore said. “We were more than proud to do it.”
How fitting then, that just as searchers and rescuers had brought Lucy back into the world of the living, members of SAR were there to gallantly see her out again.
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