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How 85-year-old was lost then found after day in wild

UPDATE: Rescued 'silver alert' driver dies

Staff writer

David Sawdy desperately needed new glasses.

His daughter, Terri Elliot, made a Friday afternoon appointment for him at an eye doctor at 13th and Rock Rds. in Wichita.

Sawdy, 85, never made it to that appointment.

He got lost — so lost that he ended up in Marion County. When his truck ran out of gas on US-50 and Wagon Wheel Rd., he all but vanished.

A silver alert went out about 10 p.m. Friday statewide, even though Sawdy doesn’t suffer from dementia. At first, his children were told he didn’t qualify for one, Elliot said.

From mid-afternoon Friday through 11:40 p.m. Saturday, his three children weren’t sure they’d ever see their beloved father again — a man with a master’s degree in math and a PhD in mechanical engineering who worked on NASA’s Apollo project in 1969, stayed at Boeing for 50 years to provide for his family, never raised his voice at them, came to all their events, and didn’t drink or smoke.

Raised in Andover, they had a happy childhood.

“We were ‘Leave it to Beaver,’ ” Elliot said.

“Happy Pappy” is what his grandchildren call him.

‘It’s a mystery’

If he doesn’t have dementia, then what happened? That’s what everyone has asked, Elliot said.

Nurses, doctors, Marion County law enforcement officers.

“It’s a mystery,” Elliot said Monday evening in Sawdy’s hospital room at Ascension Via Christi St. Francis in Wichita.

Sawdy appeared to be asleep.

Elliot whispered “He’s playing possum.”

Sawdy would nod his head to answer questions, but he didn’t speak during an interview with his family.

At the end of the interview, he opened his eyes.

“I think there are three things at play,” oldest child Bruce Sawdy said.

“One, he can’t see well. That’s why he was going to the doctor’s appointment. Two, my mother did all the driving. He didn’t drive. The last 20 years, he didn’t drive. She did the driving. She paid the bills. She was the disciplinarian. Three, he just got confused.”

He lost his wife of 61 years Feb. 18. Twyla Sawdy was 81 and fell sick before Christmas.

“They’ve been asking, ‘Were you suicidal?’ ” Elliot said. “He misses her, but he’s just always positive.”

Sawdy is always up for a jaunt to a grocery store with Elliot or to visit his six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

“He’s a people person. He loves to go and do and be,” Elliot said.

This wasn’t suicide ideation.

‘That’s where it gets fuzzy’

The timeline and trajectory of his disappearance is fascinating.

“He was supposed to go to his eye appointment Friday. He ended up at 31st South and Meridian Sts. at around 2 or 2:30, and went into a liquor store to ask for directions,” Bruce Sawdy said. “The next thing we know is that he was at Valley Center, stopped by a train. He got out and asked the person behind him how to get to Andover. But he went the other direction.”

He drove north on Ridge Rd. to Sedgwick.

“That’s where it gets fuzzy,” Bruce Sawdy said. “How did he go from Sedgwick to where the truck was found at mile marker 300 on US-50? Somehow he ended up on 50 west of Newton. That I-135, 50 interchange is a booger. You know he’s going slow because he can hardly see. What I think happened is he decided to turn right because it was probably the easiest thing to do.”

His silver 2005 Chevrolet Tahoe ran out of gas. It sat there, parked on the shoulder just a scooch from the white line.

“He got out of the car, and he saw the railroad tracks over there,” Bruce Sawdy said.

He thought he was close to Wichita, his family thinks.

He opened his door, managed to not get clipped by passing traffic, and headed south on foot.

If he had crossed the highway to go north, at dusk, he easily could have been hit by any one of the many semitrailer trucks that use US-50.

‘…He’s not in it’

Instead, Sawdy slept Friday night in a field — possibly one covered in bright purple clover on the east side of Wagon Wheel Rd. just south of US-50.

Someone who had heard about the silver alert called in about 4 p.m. Saturday that they’d spotted the Tahoe. Deputy Aaron Christner verified at 4:41 p.m. Saturday that the vehicle was Sawdy’s.

About an hour later, a citizen, who apparently had been monitoring radio transmissions, called dispatchers to say he had seen the pickup parked at that location nearly 12 hours earlier, at 6:15 p.m.

Deputy Bruce Burke went to Flying Eagle Truck Stop in Florence to see whether anyone there had seen Sawdy.

Dispatchers contacted area hospitals to see whether anyone matching Sawdy’s description had been brought in for treatment.

Deputy Aaron Slater joined Burke and Christner, as did Undersheriff Larry Starkey, who was seen conferring with Sawdy’s children, who arrived around 6 p.m.

Deputies Matt Regier, James Philpott, and Presley Mabe joined those at the scene.

Elliot’s father still was missing, but at least they had a lead.

‘They found him alive’

Law enforcement officers from Marion, Butler, Chase, Harvey, and Sedgwick counties spent hours trying to find Sawdy. They brought in search dogs, a drone, and finally, a helicopter.

Deputy Joshua Meliza found footprints consistent with tennis shoes Sawdy was thought to be wearing leading into a wooded area along Doyle Creek to the south. Both of Marion County’s police dogs and a bloodhound from Butler County attempted to track Sawdy’s scent.

A second passer-by reported that she had seen someone who might have been Sawdy standing at 7 p.m. Friday along US-50 near the pickup. A third caller later reported possibly seeing Sawdy at 1:30 or 2 p.m. Saturday.

A bloodhound search continued until just after sunset. Kansas Highway Patrol then conducted a helicopter search of the area and of US-50 between Peabody and Florence.

Law enforcement officers called off the search about 10:30 p.m.

They told Sawdy’s family that there was nothing more they could do and that they should get some rest.

Elliot went home to Andover, despondent.

“Leaving at 10:30 not knowing where your dad is is the worst,” she said. “I went back to my house and was exhausted.”

An hour later, she and her siblings got the news they’d been waiting for.

“They found him alive,” Elliot sad. “We like freaked out. I think I was in shock. I cried and laughed and screamed.”

‘What if he’s got family like me?’

In a testament to his will to live, Sawdy started crawling up to Wagon Wheel Rd. when he heard the helicopter.

At some point — no one is sure when — Sawdy had fallen into a ravine.

He broke his nose, scraped his forehead, and bruised himself all over his body.

The couple who found him — Ashley Roy and Daniel Parker — called 911. Roy told dispatchers Sawdy was coherent but cold.

Roy lives in Douglass near Andover.

She and Parker planned to go to a movie Saturday night.

But her heart was nagging at her.

“We’re a very Christian family,” she said. “I have grandparents who raised me who are pushing 80s themselves. I kind of worship older people. I have the utmost respect for them.”

She wondered: “What if he’s got family like me — a daughter who wants him home? My daughter’s 9, and she stays on weekends with the grandparents who raised me. She would be devastated, just devastated if something happened to them.”

Right before Roy and Parker found Sawdy, Sawdy’s youngest child, Brant Sawdy, said he went outside, looked up, and said: “God, please find my dad.”

“If this story doesn’t make you understand that there’s a higher power, I don’t know what will,” Bruce Sawdy said.

An ambulance took him to St. Luke Hospital in Marion.

“He had a sandwich at the hospital,” Elliot said. “We figured out that he didn’t have anything to eat or drink.”

The area is wooded. A creek runs through it. So many things could have gone wrong.

“It’s just a miracle,” Elliot said. “Why were the people out looking for him? Could he have survived another night? It’s hard to not play the what-if game.”

‘I ain’t got nothing else to do’

It took Roy and Parker an hour and 15 minutes to get to Florence from Douglass.

“It was 10 p.m. by the time we got up to Florence,” Roy said. “I took US-50 from Peabody. I took the backwoods way like my grandfather would do.”

Roy stopped at a station in Florence and scoured maps for the type of country roads she travels all the time.

“I ain’t got nothing else to do as a country girl,” she said. “This ain’t no different than home. I do this all the time.”

She said she asked God to give her a sign.

She drove south on Wagon Wheel.

“Then I saw something in the ditch,” she said. “I looked over at my boyfriend, and said ‘Baby, what is that?’ He’s got better eyesight than me.”

Then, they thought they saw a hand waving at them.

“We knew in that moment that we found him,” she said. “I slammed my car into park, and I jumped out of the vehicle, and the first thing I said was, ‘Are you David?’ ”

He said yes.

She called 911. Marion County sheriff’s officers got him into a cruiser.

‘God used as the most beautiful vessel’

Knowing Sawdy lived in Andover, Roy low-key asked questions to see whether he was coherent.

“Boy, that was quite the tornado you guys had up there in Andover,” she asked.

He agreed and talked about it.

Sawdy asked Roy for two things, she said: “He said he would like a hot cup of coffee, and he would like us to call his daughter.”

Sawdy admitted he was cold.

“I immediately started to holler at my boyfriend,” she said, telling him to grab coats and blankets from their vehicle.

Sawdy has been heavy on Roy’s heart this week. She has wanted to reach out to his family, but she didn’t know if she should. Meanwhile, his family wasn’t sure whether they were ready to talk to her.

She spent part of Tuesday writing Elliot a letter.

Roy figures there will be people who question how things played out.

She doesn’t care.

She didn’t call reporters looking for coverage.

She didn’t want praise, though she said Starkey made her feel pretty good.

Starkey was happy about the outcome.

“I wish we could have done a little more and he wouldn’t have had to have stayed out there as long as he had to,” Starkey said. “It was a good outcome. It was about the best outcome we could have hoped for.”

Roy agrees.

“There was such beauty in that moment,” she said. “What we did — that was God. God used us as the most beautiful vessel to bring David home to his family.”

Last modified April 10, 2023

 

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