Nicholas Simmons disappeared from his parents’ house in a small upstate New York town on New Year’s Day, leaving behind his wallet, cellphone and everything else.
Four days later, an Associated Press photographer, looking for a way to illustrate unusually cold weather, snapped his picture as he warmed himself on a steam grate a few blocks from the US Capitol.
Paul and Michelle Simmons saw the AP photograph in USA Today on Sunday morning after it was brought to their attention through a Facebook page set up to help find their 20-year-old son, according to police and family friends.
While questions remain unanswered about why the young man left and how he ended up in Washington, his mother expressed her relief on Facebook that her son had been located.
“It could have been months before we had a lead on his whereabouts. My baby looks so lost and I will be spending the rest of my life making him well,” she wrote.
The photo, taken on Saturday by AP photographer Jacquelyn Martin, showed Simmons with his unshaven face pressed against a grate outside the US Federal Trade Commission.
He wore a ski jacket and a hood over his head. A thick gray blanket covered his lower body.
Martin was assigned to the White House that weekend, but with US President Barack Obama still on vacation in Hawaii, she spent the day looking for shots that would illustrate the cold weather.
That is how she found Nick Simmons, in an area where homeless people often gather when it is frigid outside. She found a cluster of men huddled around the grate, introduced herself and started taking pictures.
Then she noticed one person in particular, huddled under a blanket.
“It struck me how young he was,” Martin said. “I again introduced myself and shook his hand. He said his name was Nick.”
Martin finished shooting, sent the pictures to the wire and called it a day. The next day, she received a message via Twitter from USA Today.
The newspaper had run the photo of Nick and was contacting Martin to tell her that Nick’s family had recognized him and was trying to locate him. Michelle Simmons was certain that the young man in the photograph was her son, missing for four days.
US police picked Nick up on Sunday afternoon and took him to a hospital, police Captain Patrick Phelan said. Nick’s father, Paul, and older brother, Paul Jr, arrived in Washington on Sunday night and were reunited with him at the hospital, long-time family friends, Peter and Cindy Gugino, said.