A bizarre story in need of an explanation

Constantinos “Danny” Filippidis of Toronto was declared missing at Whiteface Mountain Ski Center Feb. 7. He was found alive Tuesday, 2,900 miles away in California. (Photo provided by state police)

Everyone thought he was dead at Whiteface. Then he called his wife from California.

When Danny Filippidis of Toronto disappeared during a ski trip to Whiteface Mountain last Wednesday, his friends reported him missing around 4:30 in the afternoon. Search-and-rescue teams immediately started looking for the 49-year-old firefighter. Everyone knew that the sooner they found him, the better their chances of finding him alive.

Each hour that ticked by made his survival less likely.

Over the next 24 hours, more than a foot of snow fell on the mountain.

As many as 140 volunteers combed the steep sides of the mountain, including 88 ski trails and hundreds of acres of snow-covered forests. Helicopters flew over. K-9 teams smelled miles of tracks. With all the traffic on Whiteface, finding the cold scent of one man couldn’t have been easy.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation has a policy of hoping for the best — “We don’t look for dead people,” the saying goes, meaning they expect to find each subject alive — but as multiple nights passed with no sign of Filippidis, the people we talked to agreed there wasn’t much chance he survived.

Still, the search crews kept looking. Filippidis’ Facebook page filled up with over 90 comments of sympathy and support. Dozens of Canadian firefighters helped with the search for their comrade, but with 100 searchers each day already, they often had more help than they could use.

Then yesterday, on the seventh day of searching, the teams were informed that Filippidis had been found alive and well in Sacramento. The missing man had contacted authorities there.

People were gobsmacked when the word got out. Speculation abounded. Jokes, too.

Last night, more details emerged and things got even weirder. The head of the Toronto firefighters union told Canadian news reporters that out of the blue, Filippidis called his wife yesterday from Sacramento, California. She said he seemed confused, so she told him to call 911. He did, and the Sacramento police officers who responded found him alone, wearing the same ski gear he had on at Whiteface six days earlier: winter coat, ski pants, even his helmet.

Tuesday’s daytime high in Sacramento was in the 60s Fahrenheit. He would have been pretty hot in that getup.

Remember, we still don’t know what happened. But we can safely say it was something pretty wild.

The New York State Police maintain that the circumstances of the case are under investigation, and there may be a press conference today.

Meanwhile, a lot of people want to know if there’s a way to recoup the costs of the search. Every time those searchers went out in the woods and the snow, there was a chance they would get hurt.

Search-and-rescue teams from the DEC cost about $380,000 a year. A system of collections would require billing apparatus and office workers to push the paperwork along. That’s just not what forest rangers are all about.

Plus, we don’t know yet if this was Filippidis’ fault.

One thing we do know is that everyone deserves an explanation. We hope that happens today.

And if anyone is at fault, some people deserve an apology.

An apology would be owed to all the good-hearted folks who spent all those days looking for Filippidis, dead or alive. Some of those searchers got paid — probably with a lot of overtime at taxpayer expense, and/or at the cost of other work — but many searchers did it for free.

An apology is owed to Filippidis’ family, friends and fellow firefighters, who probably shed many tears and spent sleepless nights on his behalf.

And an apology is owed to the families of all of those people who didn’t show up alive, missed by loved ones to this day: Austin White, who died in a skiing accident at Whiteface in 2014, Daniel McGovern in 2012, Gerald Reilly in 2008 — and all the others, at Whiteface and beyond.

Whatever comes of this bizarre story, we know our rangers, police, ski patrollers, SARNAK volunteers and others will throw themselves into the next search and rescue with the same fervor they always do. They show the best side of humanity when they put their health, safety and comfort on the line to save other people, regardless of the circumstances.