Nick warms himself on a steam grate with three other homeless men by the Federal Trade Commission, just blocks from the Capitol, during frigid temperatures in Washington on Jan. 4, 2014.
(Photo: Jacquelyn Martin, AP. via USA Today)
By David Andreatta, The (Rochester, N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. For one New York family, it was the answer to a thousand prayers.
A man missing since Wednesday was located in Washington, D.C., after his photo appeared in a Rochester, N.Y., edition of USA TODAY.
Nicholas A. Simmons, 20, was last seen leaving his home in Greece, a suburb of Rochester, on New Year's Day. Family members began a search for him by contacting local news media and posting on Facebook.
In a strange twist, family members told local police they saw a man in a photograph published by USA TODAY in Sunday's Democrat and Chronicle who looked like Simmons.
The Associated Press photo ran with coverage of cold weather sweeping across the country. The caption identified a homeless man named "Nick" wrapped in a blanket just blocks from the U.S. Capitol on Saturday.
Sunday night, Greece police said they contacted police in Washington, who located Simmons.
"Simmons was taken to George Washington University Hospital as a precaution," according to a press release from police.
The photo had sparked a buzz on social media earlier in the day, as relatives of Simmons expressed elation, astonishment and determination on a public Facebook page that appears to have since been dismantled.
"Nick is alive and obviously not well," read one post by Simmons' mother, Michelle Simmons, hours before her son was found. "(We) are going to get him home safe and this is by far the greatest example of God's love and divine intervention I have ever experienced."
"I am beyond able to put into words how I am feeling."
Reached at home about an hour before police publicly confirmed Simmons had been found, Michelle Simmons declined to comment, saying that her family would speak at a later time. After police confirmed Simmons had been found, a woman at the residence said over the telephone that no one from the family was available to comment.
The photo was taken by AP photographer Jacquelyn Martin. She spotted Simmons in a huddle of homeless men. He wore a ski jacket and was wrapped in a thick gray blanket. She said she was struck by how young he looked.
"I introduced myself and shook his hand and he would only say that his name was 'Nick,'" Martin said in an interview. "I told him that if I could write his whole name in the photo sometimes it could help him connect with family and he said, 'No, I'm OK, but you can just write that my name is Nick.'"
The next day, Martin received a message via Twitter from USA TODAY reporter Natalie DiBlasio, whose story about the frigid temperatures was illustrated with Martin's photo.
DiBlasio had contacted Martin after receiving a tweet from Simmons' sister, Hannah Simmons, at 10:50 a.m. that read: "please contact me. you wrote an article for USA today that features a picture of my missing brother."
DiBlasio put Michelle Simmons in touch with Martin, whom would later guide longtime Simmons family friends from Fairfax Station, Va., to the spot outside the Federal Trade Commission building where she had taken the photograph.
The family friends, Peter and Cindy Gugino, and Martin eventually found Simmons, and police later picked him up.
"It's very easy to put people in a box and to forget that these are real people who have families who love them and are worried about them," said Martin, who hails from Syracuse, N.Y., and is coincidentally a 2001 graduate of Rochester Institute of Technology. "An experience like this really reminds you that every person has a story."
Simmons was reunited with his father, Paul, and brother, Paul Simmons Jr., at the hospital.
Greece police, who publicized Simmons' disappearance late last week, said there were no leads in the case until the publication of the photo.
"It was pure dumb luck how all this happened," Greece police Sgt. David Mancuso, the lead investigator, told the Associated Press. "It's truly a miracle."
To comprehend the odds of something like this happening, consider that Simmons' photo had been selected by USA TODAY from the Associated Press wire, which carries thousands of photos at any given time and often offers news outlets that subscribe to the service several different images of the same event to illustrate news stories.
In this case, the Associated Press wire moved 126 photos depicting frigid conditions from across the country. Three of them were of Simmons, but only in one of them could his face been clearly seen.