An elderly man walked into a Long John Silver's in Ohio. He was lost, he told the young woman waiting to take his order. He needed to get to Iowa to see his wife.
She didn't know he was coming, he told the employee. She'd be angry if she knew he was driving because he hadn't driven in a few years.
"That right there triggered something in my head," said Stephanie Davis, 22. "He couldn't talk clearly, and it didn't seem like what I was saying to him was clicking."
He walked out of the restaurant, got into his minivan and began to turn the opposite way of where she told him to go.
She quickly jotted down his Iowa tag number and called police. She had no way of knowing the man had driven nearly a thousand miles, and that his wife was back home, worried sick.
Pia Kirchberg, 49, woke up from a nap about 12:20 p.m. Tuesday to find her 80-year-old husband, Maurice, and her minivan gone, according to Tampa Police. Maurice Kirchberg had dementia and didn't take his medication with him.
Early Tuesday evening, police alerted the local media with a description of Kirchberg and his vehicle and a statewide Silver Alert was issued on electronic highway signs.
By Wednesday morning, no one had reported seeing him and the Silver Alert's six-hour expiration passed. In some cases, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement can contact other states that use the Silver Alert System. In this case, the agency did not, according to FDLE spokeswoman Heather Smith.
During his journey up Interstate 75, Kirchberg must have been driving in a way that did not concern other drivers or attract the attention of state troopers. He had to have stopped for gas, and maybe food and water. He probably spoke to others and may have seemed fine.
This is typical of Alzheimer's and dementia patients who wander, said Gloria Smith, CEO of the Florida Gulf Coast Chapter of the Alzheimer's Association. Even as the disease progresses and recent memories fade, patients may still remember the rules of the road and other skills they've been practicing for 50 years.
The Kirchbergs had only moved to the Lowry Park area of Tampa from Dubuque, Iowa, in November.
In his mind, Smith said, Maurice Kirchberg was probably just going home.
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About 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Davis called the police in West Chester Township, where Kirchberg stopped at the Long John Silver's.
An hour later, police in nearby Forest Park pulled over a white Pontiac minivan with the Iowa plate number 753NBA. The van's description had been posted all over the state's highway electronic sign system because when West Chester police looked it up on a national law enforcement database, they found the van belonged to someone who was tagged "critical missing," according to Tamara McBride of the Ohio Emergency Management Agency.
Police transported Kirchberg to a nearby hospital, according to Forest Park's Sgt. Pat Carr, and immediately notified Tampa Police.
Pia Kirchberg could not be reached Thursday morning. Carr said he understood she was arriving at the Cincinnati airport that afternoon.
"They'll be together by dinner time," he said.
Thursday, Davis learned from a reporter the rest of the story about the elderly man she tried to help.
Soft-spoken and shy, Davis said she was glad she acted on her "weird feeling."
"I didn't want to let him go," she said. "But I knew I couldn't force him to stay there."
Davis thought of her own grandmother, who has dementia and is in a nursing home. How worried the man's family must have been.
"If you talk to his wife," she said, "I would love to get in touch with her."
But if not, she said, that's okay.
"I'm just so glad I could help."
Emily Nipps can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8452.