They were just another couple enjoying a night on the town in New York City. First they saw "The Book of Mormon" on Broadway where they laughed while reciting their favorite lines. Next they haggled with a street vendor for a $1 pretzel, “the most disappointing” pretzel they ever had. Eventually, they made their way to Times Square, where they kissed. A photographer who happened to be nearby captured the moment and showed them the shot on his camera before leaving without sharing his name.
The memory of that day in June 2015 returned to Saya Tomioka after she learned that her college sweetheart, Griffin Madden, had died along with 36 other partygoers in the fire that ripped through the Oakland, California, warehouse known as the "Ghost Ship." She also knew there was also a photographic record of that treasured moment so she turned to social media in hopes of finding the photographer.
Related: Oakland Warehouse Fire: Victims Had No Warning Before Killer Smoke
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“Maybe some Facebook miracle could happen,” Tomioka began in her post two days after the fire. “I remember tears swelling in my eyes because the city was so beautiful and amidst all the lights, I got to look at the brightest light of all, my sweetie,” she said of the moment.
Arken Avan, the photographer, is a frequent visitor to Times Square. According to his Facebook page, he enjoys "capturing heartwarming moments and portraits" in the area. On the same day Tomioka sent out her plea, he was posting on social media as usual. This time it was a picture of a little girl playfully sticking her tongue out at the camera.
Three hundred shares and four days later, Tomioka’s virtual message in a bottle reached its intended audience.
Two people shared the post with Avan, suggesting that perhaps it was his image. Avan decided to check, but was unsure if it was his or if he would still have it. After all, the image was taken more than a year ago.
After a search of 200,000 images in his archive of street photos, Avan located the moment. “So happy I found it,” Avan shared in a follow-up post. “I hope this beautiful moment in a photo will stay forever in your memory Saya.”
Tomioka expressed gratitude for all who helped reunite her with the cherished memory.
“PS: Special thanks for those who reached out to @newyorkfaces + endless endless gratitude for Arken Avan photography for capturing our love.”
She also had a final message for Madden: “I will miss you desperately…I promise you that I will never stop dancing; I'll dance even harder. I will never stop laughing; I'll laugh even louder. I will never stop loving; I'll love even prouder.”