A woman whose best friend went missing in 2017 is hoping a new documentary will finally help solve the curious case of the beloved schoolteacher.
Hannah Upp, a schoolteacher who went missing on St. Thomas, in the Virgin Islands, in 2017, is the subject of a new special hosted by Elizabeth Vargas, who is behind the new A&E Networks docuseries “The Untold Story,” about events that have a profound impact on our country.
The episode “Vanished in Paradise: The Untold Story,” set to premiere May 16 at 9 p.m., explores the mysterious disappearance of Upp, a 32-year-old woman from Oregon, who vanished in the chaotic days between two Category 5 hurricanes, Irma and Maria. It features interviews with Upp’s mother, friends and law enforcement, who are still actively searching for her.
Upp's friend Maggie, also a schoolteacher who has asked that her last name not be used over privacy concerns, said she quickly bonded with Upp after they met in St. Thomas in 2015. Upp was a teaching assistant for preschoolers at a Montessori school.
“We did Zumba together,” Maggie recalled. “We worked together. We cooked meals together, went to concerts together, did trips together. We were very close. [And] I think for the most part she loved living in St. Thomas. There are a lot of good things about living there. She loved her job at the school. It was something she was really passionate about [concerning] her life on the island. She also loved going on boat trips, swimming, snorkeling — just being on the ocean. She just loved living on the island.”
However, Maggie insisted Upp wasn’t acting like her usual self when they reunited after the summer of 2017.
“She told me that the fall was a very hard time for her,” Maggie reflected. “She told me she struggled in the fall but didn’t explain the extent of it. I later felt a little guilty that I didn’t know why about one of my best friends. That I hadn’t gotten that far to get that information out of her.”
When Hurricane Irma hit St. Thomas on Sept. 6, Upp had embarked on her fourth year of teaching. Hurricane Maria, another Category 5 storm, was forecast to hit the island the following week. In a story about the case, The New Yorker reported Upp was helping the school prepare for the storm and one morning she got in her car and told her roommates she was heading there. But she never showed up at the school and vanished.
The outlet shared that after three days, her friends had to call off the search to prepare for Hurricane Maria. When the storm subsided, an EMT who had set up a makeshift emergency medical services station on the island organized another search. Despite canvassing the airport, homeless shelters, beaches, hospitals, the morgue and even after interviewing captains who came in and out of the island’s marina, Upp was nowhere to be found.
“I was just thinking about all the things we could do to find her,” Maggie explained. “I was just so worried about her… I initially thought she was just with another friend… I tried to get in touch with anyone who might know anything.”
However, Maggie was in for a big surprise. She had no idea Upp had been previously diagnosed with dissociative fugue, which is described as a rare condition in which patients "lose access to their autobiographical memory and personal identity." According to The New Yorker, those with the dissociative fugue occasionally adopt a new identity or suddenly embark on a long journey. The state is typically triggered by trauma, a natural disaster or “by an unbearable internal conflict.”
The condition is also nicknamed “Jason Bourne Syndrome” after the fictional character from the “Bourne Identity” franchise.
Eleven years prior, in 2008, Upp, then a 23-year-old Spanish teacher, left her New York City apartment to go jogging and vanished. About three weeks later, The New York Times reported, a Staten Island Ferry captain spotted her floating face-down in the waters of New York Harbor. It was then, after being pulled to safety, that Upp was diagnosed with the extremely rare form of amnesia.
The newspaper revealed Upp left New York in 2010 and worked at a Quaker study and retreat outside of Philadelphia. She then became a teaching assistant in Montessori schools, including one in Maryland. Then in September 2013, Upp experienced another episode and disappeared for two days. She then moved to St. Thomas the following year for a new teaching job.
Maggie admitted she didn’t know what to make of the diagnosis.
“I wanted to learn more about it, but mostly for the purpose of trying to figure out what might have happened to her,” she explained. “Curiosity wasn’t really an option at that point. When somebody you love is distressed, you’re determined to do anything to find out what happened to them. That’s where my mind was.”
Upp’s mother and brother have since written a lengthy statement on Facebook about supporting the A&E special.
“We want you all to know that we struggled with the decision of whether or not to support and contribute to this documentary at all,” they wrote. “Eventually, there were two key factors that led us to make the choice to do so. One, a program was probably going to be made whether we contributed or not, and we desired to do what we could to ensure that the information presented in the program was factually correct to the best of our knowledge.”
“Two, if Hannah is still out there somewhere, we never know what unexpected connection may lead us to a clue to locating her again,” they continued. “All it would take is for one person to see the program and recognize her. True, there may be some erroneous reports as well, but we feel that it is worth the trouble to sift through them if it gives us a chance to locate Hannah…. The circle of friends and family who miss her is still wide and strong, and each link matters. We take hope from the connections that continue and all who join us in reaching out to find Hannah.”
Maggie also shared that she hoped the documentary will shed new light on Upp, as well as encourage viewers to submit any information that could finally lead to an answer.
“I want people to understand the person that is Hannah,” she said. “She’s just such an inspirational person. She has impacted so many people in her life.”