When a Nashville algebra teacher lost consciousness after a terrible automobile accident in Alabama two weekends ago, her two dogs slipped away, too.
But the power of community — a community of strangers, brought together by compassion and glued together by social media — has found one of Olivia Hatfield's precious pets and taken the search for the other to a new level, starting today.
Hatfield, who has taught at Antioch High School since 2009, and her husband, Seth, an internal auditor for Metro government, were driving home June 29 from a family reunion in her hometown, Dothan, Ala., when an 18-wheeler veered into their lane, longtime friend Elliott Thomas said. The Hatfields' vehicle went off the road and smashed into a tree.
While Seth escaped with minor injuries, Olivia was critically injured and taken by LifeFlight to a hospital in Birmingham, where doctors put her into a medically induced coma. Meanwhile, the Hatfields' dogs, Molly and Claire, ran from the accident scene.
Thomas, who went to high school with Olivia in Dothan and now lives in Nashville as well, said he tried to work the day after the accident but couldn't focus. So his boss at Brite Revolution, where he's the national sales director, told him to head south to be close to his friend.
After hearing from another friend that the dogs were missing, Thomas pulled off at the exit closest to the accident site in Cullman, Ala., about 50 miles north of Birmingham and roughly 250 miles north of Dothan. There he found two vanloads of local residents already searching for Molly and Claire.
They wouldn't be the only ones.
"I spent my night just searching around with those families, and they were just so dedicated," Thomas said. "They just kept showing up, and it just grew and grew and grew to this Facebook group of over 3,000 members that all came together out of compassion for the tragic circumstance and a love for animals."
The Facebook group is called "Help Find Molly and Claire!" Many of its members were drawn in, Thomas said, by a sense that they could be in the same position.
"It's very easy for people who have pets to put themselves in that scenario," he said.
Despite all their efforts, the searchers didn't see Molly. They occasionally saw Claire — who may have run off in a different direction than Molly — but they couldn't get to her. Seth Hatfield wrote on the group Facebook page on July 1 that he had spotted her himself that morning, when he couldn't be in the intensive care unit with his wife, "but she is frightened and running from everyone."
"Olivia loves those dogs with all her heart," Seth wrote. "I need to be able to tell her they are safe when she wakes up."
On Tuesday morning, a search team member from a local animal shelter said she had gotten a call from a woman who was pretty sure she had found Molly. The dog had a Tennessee tag, and when Thomas told the woman Olivia's phone number, it matched the digits on the tag.
Molly, a Weimaraner, had actually been with the woman's next-door neighbor, an elderly man who thought it was his neighbor's dog, another Weimaraner. He had been keeping her safe for about three days, Thomas said.
"MOLLY IS FOUND AND IN THE ARMS OF OUR SEARCH TEAM!!" he posted around noon on Tuesday.
Claire is still loose. But after the Facebook community contributed some $2,500, Thomas was able to hire a professional dog tracker from New Jersey. She arrived in Nashville on Tuesday night and then headed to Alabama so she can start work today. Thomas said the $2,500 will pay for about four hours of work by the woman and her team, who will try to find the dog by scent.
He said he's been amazed by the outpouring of love from so many strangers.
"That Facebook page has become a beacon of encouragement for the family," he said. "How did people used to do that? Did they wait for letters to come in the mail? With technology today, it's just incredible how people have come together."
Reach Michael Cass at 615-259-8838 and on Twitter @tnmetro.