During a European cruise this fall, Tom Hansen and his wife, Yvonne, spent a port day visiting historic sites in Athens, Greece. While having their picture taken on a hillside with a view of the Acropolis, Hansen spotted a camera memory card on the ground.
“No one else was around, and there was discussion about throwing it away,” Hansen told msnbc.com. “But I put it in my pocket and carried it around for the rest of the trip.”
When Hansen returned home to Bellevue, Wash., at the end of October, he loaded the memory card onto his computer and began looking through the 550 mystery pictures.
The most recent shots showed an unknown couple in Athens and on various Greek islands. Earlier pictures showed the couple in various cities, at family gatherings and playing with a baby that looked to be a new grandchild. By studying the pictures, Hansen concluded that they documented about a year-and-a-half of milestones in someone’s life.
“I decided I wanted to find these people and get the memory card back in their hands,” he said.
So he studied the photos for clues.
One shot showed the names of two female tennis players on a scoreboard with what looked to Hansen like English countryside in the background. Hansen pulled up the Wimbledon website and discovered that the women had indeed played there, so he figured the mystery couple had been to Wimbledon.
Maybe they lived in England.
Hansen placed an online ad on craigslist in London. He also posted notices containing several photos from the memory card on websites devoted to reuniting people with lost cameras.
Undeterred, Hansen kept looking.
One of the mystery photos showed a man in a classroom being awarded a plaque and a gift bag. On the wall were these partial words: ‘tute,’ ‘pool’ and ‘us.’ Hansen tried matching the letters to school-related words and came up with “institute” and “Liverpool,” then pondered banners in the room bearing Chinese characters.
“They looked like sayings, and I thought, ‘Confucius was good for sayings,’ so I looked up the Confucius Institute. Turns out there are more than 100 of these institutes around the world, and one is at the University of Liverpool.”
So Hansen called the institute and got Sandra Sheridan on the phone.
“I arranged for him to e-mail me some of the photos, which I forwarded to various staff members in my department,” said Sheridan. “Fortunately someone recognized Richard Knight.”
Knight was not an employee of school, but he was a consultant whose retirement party had been held there a year earlier.
A colleague from the university contacted Knight to let him know that someone named Tom Hansen in America had found the memory card and was trying to return it.
“We were thrilled because it really showed what great people we have in the world,” Knight told msnbc.com. “To take the trouble to track us down by looking at the pictures was terrific, and, of course, superb detective work. And Tom has not only returned the memory card, he made two backup disks. He’s a star.”
As it turns out, Knight and his wife, Annette, who live in Formby, England, had actually been on the same cruise ship as the Hansens. Both couples had visited the same hillside to get a view of the Acropolis.
“We were having trouble with our digital camera,” Knight said. “And when my wife tried to re-position the battery, she inadvertently detached the memory card from the camera. You can imagine our disappointment when the card appeared to be lost forever.”
Matt Preprost, founder of IFoundYourCamera.net, said that while the number of photos from found cameras and memory cards varies from week to week, since 2008 his website has been visited close to 7 million times. The site has reunited dozens of lost cameras with their owners.
Knight and Hansen haven’t talked on the phone yet, but Hansen feels he’s gotten to know the Knights – and what they’ve been up to for the past year-and-a-half – by studying their photos.
In an e-mail, Knight has offered a cash reward to Hansen for his troubles.
“I refused payment,” said Hansen. “But if what I did inspires someone else to do something nice, that’s my reward.”
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