It’s a classic needle-in-a-haystack story, except the needle the Myers family was looking for was their mother’s diamond rings and pearl bracelet.
And the haystack was a mountain of hospital waste in a Pennsylvania landfill.
It was the faith of a good Samaritan that carried the day when everybody else wanted to give up. The lesson, Frank Dabney told TODAY co-host Meredith Vieira on Friday, is in the words he lives by: “Don’t give up five minutes before the miracle.”
Dabney is a custodian at Paoli Hospital, where the Myers family had misplaced the jewelry. He had come along to help with the search because it was the right thing to do. And, after some seven hours dressed in plastic suits under an unseasonably fierce sun, he kept them going.
“I felt compassion for them,” he said. “I don’t feel like a hero. I just felt like I would want somebody to do the same for me.”
This happy ending began with a family tragedy. On Sept. 25, on the day before his 54th wedding anniversary, George Myers died in his sleep. After his funeral and interment, his widow, 83-year-old Susan Myers, passed out.
A diabetic, Myers was given a shot of insulin, but did not recover and was rushed to Paoli Hospital in suburban Philadelphia. There her children removed her wedding ring, the 50th anniversary ring Susan Myers’ father had given her mother, and a pearl bracelet.
For nearly 54 years of marriage, she had almost never removed the wedding ring, and all of the jewelry had enormous sentimental value to her.
For safekeeping, Greg Myers put his mother’s jewelry in a rubber glove, tied it off and — he thought — put the glove in his pocket. And then he forgot about it completely.
The next day, when his siblings asked where the jewelry was, Greg Myers had no idea.
“It was a complete blank,” he told Vieira. “I had no recollection after tying them off where they went. I was pretty panic-stricken. I didn’t know where to look except for going through the house, and nothing was showing up.”
They had been forced to conclude that the glove with the jewelry had been left at the hospital and ended up in the trash.
When Dabney told them it had probably been picked up and taken to a landfill, the family called the waste management company that served the hospital.
They got lucky. The waste management firm hadn’t dumped the last load — a huge compacted mass of trash that measured 10 feet wide, 30 feet long and 10 feet high — and agreed to deposit it in the landfill apart from other trash so they could go through it.
Susan Myers was due to leave the hospital, and she would want her jewelry. Her children, not wanting to break the bad news to her, asked the hospital staff to keep her another day while they tried to find the precious heirlooms.
Dressed in “poor man’s hazmat suits” — plastic pants and tops with face masks bought at a discount store — the family arrived at the dump at 5:30 a.m. on Oct. 2 to try to find the jewels. They offered to pay Dabney to help, but he gave the impression talking to Vieira that he wasn’t doing it for the money.
They also brought a video camera to document their search.
“ I didn’t think we were going to be able to find these rings,” Jeff Myers, another of Susan Myers’ sons, explained when asked why they brought a camera. “I wanted to show Mom, ‘I’m really sorry, your precious rings and jewelry are gone — here’s what we went through to try to recover them for you.’ That’s why we took the camera — to document it for her and hopefully make the loss a little bit easier to take.”
And after seven hours picking through hundreds and hundreds of bags of hospital waste, they were exhausted and convinced the rings and bracelet were gone forever.
Refused to give up
But Dabney wouldn’t let the search party quit. He repeated his belief that you can never quit five minutes before the miracle.
“I prayed to God and pulled one more bag — because we were about exhausted — and our prayers were answered,” he said. “There it was.”
As a reward, the family gave Dabney $1,000.
Vieira asked if the family thought divine intervention was involved in the miraculous find.
Jeff Myers answered that it wasn’t God, but his departed father who orchestrated the whole thing from above.
“We were all going through a pretty tough time,” he said. “I think he was up there and wanted to give us something to take our minds off our grieving. It sure did that. He led us through quite an excursion.”
Susan Myers couldn’t come to the TODAY studio, but listened to the story from her home in West Brandywine, Pa. She was still trying to decide what to make of the drama her children had been through without her knowledge.
“I’m getting used to being glad, because I did not know they were lost,” she told Vieira.
While she’s deciding how to feel, she was certain about what she’ll do the next time she has to take her rings off:
“I’m certainly not going to give it to them for safekeeping,” she said.
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints