The mother of Bailey Meola, one of two young women from Seattle killed in the April 25 earthquake in Nepal, said she wishes U.S. officials were doing more to find and identify her daughter’s remains.
Rachelle Brown knows the story of her 19-year-old daughter, Bailey Meola, can’t have a happy ending.
That much was assured last spring, when a magnitude 7.8 earthquake in Nepal killed more than 8,000 people, including Meola and her traveling companion and Garfield High School classmate, Sydney Schumacher.
But Brown says her heartache has been compounded by what she feels have been ineffective efforts by U.S. officials to find and identify the remains of her only child.
“I feel like I’m in trauma every day because this isn’t resolved,” she said. “And I can’t stop until I know that she is accounted for.”
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It would be difficult enough, Brown said, if she knew that her daughter was lost forever under the avalanche of ice, rock, mud and debris that wiped out the village in the Langtang Valley where the young women were staying at the time of the April 25 quake.
But it’s hearing that sets of human remains brought down from the area have been lying in a hospital morgue — untested and unidentified — that renews her pain daily.
She continues to recall a conversation she and her daughter had, shortly before Meola’s trip, on the dangers a young woman might face in a round-the-world adventure.
“I told her that if anything ever happened to her. I would go wherever she was and I would find her and bring her home,” said Brown. “That promise gives me purpose.”
Brown and her husband, Scott Meola, plan to travel to Kathmandu in April and hope that by then, her daughter’s remains will have been found and identified, as Schumacher’s were months ago.
In June, a U.S. Embassy representative in Nepal, in response to questions from Brown, said more than 270 people had died in Langtang and 68 were still missing.
Brown said she finds no comfort in an email she received Friday from Dominic Randazzo, acting consular section chief at the U.S. Embassy in Kathmandu.
Although Randazzo acknowledges that unidentified remains are in a Nepal hospital, he said a doctor there told him none show “evidence of Western-style dental treatment.”
He said samples from the remains have been sent to a police forensic lab in Nepal for DNA tests, and that the embassy has told Nepali officials “that locating and identifying Bailey and other Americans is our highest priority.”
But Brown said she has received conflicting information in the past few months about when DNA testing would be done and how long it would take.
Her emails to the embassy indicate her growing frustration. “Continually, I have to come to you,” she wrote in a Jan. 25 email. “You do not update me or inform me of any delays or changes in the situation. You are failing me. You are failing my daughter.”
The family’s plea for assistance from elected officials last week drew the attention of U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Bellevue. On Friday, Smith staffers sent a letter airing Brown’s concerns to the U.S. Department of State.
Brown said she appreciates the action but was hoping the congressman would make a personal phone call on her behalf.
In the meantime, Brown said she is somewhat comforted by “bittersweet” moments and thoughts. One of those came in a message conveyed to her through the U.S. Embassy from Rory Goodwin, another American trekker. He was one of the last people — other than those killed in the quake — to see Meola and Schumacher alive.
Goodwin told about meeting the two young Seattle women on a peak above the Langtang Valley. “Bailey pulled out a package of Oreos which we all shared,” he wrote. “We took each other’s pictures with each other’s cameras.”
“The last thing I remember as we parted: The two of them shouted ‘Go Seahawks!’ and waved to us,” he said.
The next day, just before noon, the earthquake struck. Across Nepal, the quake and subsequent aftershocks overtaxed the country’s ability to rescue and assist those who had survived and recover those who had not.
For weeks, the families of Meola and Schumacher clung to hopes that their daughters might be alive, perhaps stranded somewhere.
But after a trip to Nepal by Schumacher’s brothers, the families issued a joint statement on social media saying that due to the “immense and unfathomable destruction and devastation, it was clear that there was no chance our girls had survived.”
The families also noted that “Although our strong desire has been to hear final confirmation from the U.S. Embassy, and to receive our girls’ remains, we haven’t, and may never.”
A third American woman in Langtang, Dawn Habash, 57, a yoga instructor from Maine, is also believed to have been killed. Her remains have not been recovered.
As snow in the area melted last summer, about a dozen bodies were spotted by a Nepal Army helicopter crew. But the bodies were not all in a single location, making retrieval difficult. The bodies of 21 people were recovered later, in October, after the monsoon season ended, according to The New York Times.
Randazzo’s Friday email to Brown said that after the earthquake, the U.S. Embassy took possession of remains of those who were visually, or through DNA testing, determined to the U.S. citizens.
But by local laws, he said, identifying other remains is a responsibility of officials of Nepal.
“We have repeated offers to provide technical assistance and support, which have been declined each time,” he said.
Meola and Schumacher were traveling around the world after graduating from Garfield High School in 2014. The two met in Thailand in mid-April before flying to Kathmandu.
After Nepal, Schumacher planned to work on a farm in Hawaii.
Meola planned to travel through Europe and rendezvous with her parents in Ireland on Father’s Day.
Tempering Brown’s sadness is pride in her daughter, who worked eight months for the Boy Scouts to finance a global trip that she planned not just for fun, but to help her find her place in the world.
“She wanted to be humbled, to find a purpose that was greater than having a privileged American life,” Brown said.
She realizes that much of what is collected of the victims in the Langtang Valley is partial remains.
“Whatever the mountain doesn’t keep, we want to bring home.”