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The time I lost my kid in public

By Amanda Enayati, Special to CNN
updated 9:18 AM EDT, Mon August 13, 2012
An expert recommends making sure your child knows your contact information in case you get separated.
An expert recommends making sure your child knows your contact information in case you get separated.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Amanda Enayati was traveling when she lost her daughter in a train station
  • A network of strangers helped her regain custody of her daughter quickly
  • Her daughter, 8, kept her cool during the ordeal, but Enayati felt helpless
  • Afterward, Enayati sought advice from an expert on how to prepare for similar situations

Editor's note: Columnist Amanda Enayati ponders the theme of seeking serenity, the quest for well-being and life balance in stressful times. Follow her on Twitter or on Facebook..

(CNN) -- The first thing I do when I arrive in D.C. is lose my kid.

Our plane has just landed at Reagan National Airport. My children and I pick up our bags and make our way to the Metro station.

Though we've been Northern Californians for the past five years -- most of my children's lives --Washington is where it all started for our family.

It's where I went to Howard University and then Georgetown; where I lived and worked for the better part of a decade; where I met my husband at one of those parties where his world (politics) and mine (international development) collided; where almost every weekend we biked through Rock Creek Park, past Georgetown, over the Roosevelt Bridge and on the banks of the Potomac River, all the way to Old Town Alexandria.

I huddle on the train with my son, 6, and daughter, 8, whispering stories, family lore, that get more animated with each stop closer to the heart of town.

At Gallery Place station, we get out to switch trains, from the Yellow Line to the Red Line. It's rush hour and the station is packed with people. It's slow going, like wading through molasses. Our bags are small and they roll, but it's tough to stay together in the tangle of bodies in a hurry.

We take the escalator up to our next train. By the time we get to it, the train doors have just closed. We stand back on the platform, prepared to wait for the next one, when suddenly ... the doors open again.

My daughter does not hesitate. She jumps in. My son and I rush to follow, but the doors begin to close before we can step through. A man sees what's happening. He puts his hands in the small crack between the closing doors and tries to pry them back open.

Slowly the sliver in the door narrows. The train doors slam shut. "My daughter ..." I'm choking on the words.

I see her little face, eyes wide, through the train windows. Time slows to a surreal crawl.

"My daughter," I say again in an abnormally high pitch.

I aim a futile kick at the door, and look up and down the length of the train for the conductor. I don't see one. My child's eyes and mine lock through the glass as the train begins to move out of the station.

I am rooted in place, mind reeling in horror, no clue what to do next. Until I hear the wail of a second child. "My sister ..." His curls soaked with sweat, tears streaking his red-flushed face, my 6-year-old is frantic.

"You need to go to the station manager," says a passerby. "They will stop the train at the next station and get her off." I calculate how long it might take for the train bearing my daughter to get to the next stop, grab my son's hand and our two bags, and take off running toward the station manager's booth.

As we sprint together, my son continues to cry: "My sister! That was my sister!"

I bang on the door to the station manager's booth. One of the two people inside pokes her head out. I do my best to explain what happened. She listens to me for about a minute and then she says: "Ma'am, you need to calm down."

Then she goes back into the booth.

I try to hold the door open so I can see or hear what's happening. She snaps at me to close the door. You are letting out all the air conditioning, she says. It seems very cold to me, but I need this woman to help me get my child back and so I comply. I don't tell her off for her lack of empathy, for asking a woman who has just lost her child to calm down and close the door so the air conditioning doesn't escape.

I stand there with my boy, who is inconsolable, for what feels like a very long time.

Then I hear a blessed sound. My cell phone ringing. A D.C. number. I answer. It's a man. It's Richard. Richard with an English accent. Richard utters the most beautiful words I have ever heard. I have your daughter, he says. We are at the next station, he says. On the platform.

Please wait, I say. Wait there. I will be right there. Please wait. Thank you, I say. Thank you. I take off running again, small boy and bags in tow.

The wait for the next train seems interminable. But when we finally arrive, I look out and there she is. My girl, standing with Richard. I hug her. I hug him. I thank him a dozen times. I would thank him a thousand more times if I could.

The manager from the next train station is standing there too. She smiles and greets us with kind, soothing words.

Richard says goodbye. I watch him leave and wish I could do something more to thank him.

"It happens all the time, especially during tourist season," the lovely station manager explains, as she walks us to our next train, helps us with our bags and waits until we are all safely on board.

My daughter tells me later that when the doors closed between us and the train lurched forward, she almost fell.

A man standing nearby helped her get steady. "My name is Richard," he told her. "Don't worry. I will help you." Richard and another passenger, a woman, got my daughter off at the next station.

I know my mommy's cell number, my daughter told him. Clever girl, Richard told her. Then he called me from his phone.

Richard would not leave my daughter's side until I arrived. My daughter said he refused to give her up to the custodian who was dispatched to collect her. "The man wasn't wearing a uniform or anything, and Richard would not let him take me. He said he was staying right there with me."

"Were you scared?" I asked.

She considered my question. "No," she said. "It was fscary."

What does that mean?

"It was kind of fun-scary," she said with pride.

It could have gone awry, but it didn't. It turned out fine -- even better than fine. My daughter stayed calm throughout. Much calmer than me. It was a victory for her.

Do your children know what to do if they get lost or separated from you in public? Mine didn't. We had never discussed it.

This is what I now know, thanks to Nancy A. McBride, National Safety Director for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children:

• Discuss emergency plans with your child ahead of time.

• Make sure your child knows your first and last name (and that of any other caregiver), cell number, address and, if you are traveling, where you are staying. If he or she is too young to remember this information, sew or safety pin a note inside his clothes, or write information inside a shoe. (For younger children, also include the child's first and last names.) Tell her how to find this information when in need.

• Teach your child to seek help from someone who is in a position of authority, like a conductor at a train station, a uniformed law enforcement officer, a flight attendant or a store clerk with a name tag -- people McBride calls "low-risk helping adults." Ask your child to identify who potential helping adults may be in everyday, nonemergency situations.

• The key thing is for your child to stay put, in public, as close as possible to the place where you became separated. Do not let anyone take them anyplace else. (Richard had done exactly the right thing by having my daughter get off at the next stop, remaining with her on the platform and refusing to allow anyone he did not recognize in an official capacity to take her away.)

• Undertake age-appropriate role play, both at home and in public, to prepare your child for unexpected circumstances. "But make sure the role play is fun. The what-if practice scenarios are a great thing as long as they are not frightening to the child," says McBride.

• If at all possible, when you're heading to crowded public places like amusement parks or fairs, show your child a map or layout ahead of time. "Whether or not children grasp the concept of a map is not important, as long as they understand there are places where they can get help," says McBride. You can also occasionally point out to children where they may obtain assistance in different venues so it's not a mysterious thing.

Despite the brief initial stumble, our trip to Washington was magical. My daughter's confident retelling of how she calmly weathered a dramatic circumstance even more so.

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