63-year-old Charmaine runs a catering company in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Being a business owner gives her the flexibility to choose her own schedule. Early every morning, she takes her wiener dog Georgie for a walk. This April day seemed a day like any other. But when her dog started barking loudly at a drain duct in the gutter, everything changed.
Georgie is not usually a barker, so Charmaine was puzzled. Then she heard a small cry coming from the drain. At first, she thought it was a cat meowing, but decided to get on her hands and knees to listen closer. After a few seconds, she realized those weren’t really feline sounds. Charmaine started panicking at the thought of what might be down that drain. She wanted to investigate, but she needed help.
Electric fence installer Cornie Viljoen stopped his car. Charmaine explained to him what was going on, and he also bent down to listen to the sounds. He, too, heard faint sobs that he thought could be human. He walked to the trunk of his car and pulled out a steel bar. With Charmaine's help, he used it as a lever to lift the concrete lintel covering the drain. They looked inside but saw nothing.
The bottom of the drain was about six feet down. Carefully, Cornie climbed inside. As soon as his feet touched the ground, he started feeling multiple stings on both his legs. He realized he was standing on top of a red ant colony. Unfazed, he continued his mission. But maneuvering inside that drain didn't prove an easy task.
"When I got into the hole it was higher than my head and it was so narrow that I had to go down on my knees and I couldn't bend over,” recalls Cornie. He started feeling around with his hands in the dark, looking for the source of the cries. Then he touched something that sent a chill down his spine.
Cornie's hand came upon what felt like a baby's leg. His suspicions were confirmed: it was a baby's cries that he and Charmaine had been hearing. He took out his phone and snapped a photo to document the situation. Unsure if the baby had any injuries, he picked it up very carefully. That's when he realized something even more shocking.
The baby that Charmaine and Cornie had just found was a newborn girl, naked and with the umbilical cord still attached. "She was so small," said Cornie. "I just wanted to hold her for a while but I knew that she needed urgent medical help." He told Charmaine to call emergency services. The pair had no idea if the baby would make it.
Cornie handed the baby to Charmaine, who wrapped her in her jersey to keep her warm. Soon after, police and paramedics arrived at the scene. They quickly treated her for hypothermia before rushing her to Dora Nginza Hospital. That's when the true extent of her condition and health became apparent.
Once word got out that a newborn child had been found inside a storm drain, Provincial Health spokesman Sizwe Kupelo made a statement, where he confirmed the child was suffering from hypothermia and a respiratory infection caused by her exposure to the cold. And, according to the social worker assigned to her case, Charmaine and Cornie rescued her just in the nick of time.
Social worker Pamela Rubushe estimated that the baby had been left in the drain at least a couple of hours before she was found, and had been close to succumbing to hypothermia. "I just do not know why anyone could do this to a newborn baby but I was just so glad that we were able to help her and save her life," stated Cornie. Police began working to find the answer to that question.
Police spokeswoman Colonel Priscilla Naidu put out a call for any witnesses or people with knowledge of the incident to come forward. An investigation into concealment of birth and child abandonment was also opened. The department's Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Crimes Unit was called in to try and trace the baby's mother. But Charmaine believes it's not only the mother they should be looking for.
"There is no way that a mother who had just given birth could have lifted that heavy concrete cover on her own as it took me and a very strong man with a big steel bar to get the lintel off the drain," said Charmaine. "There are clearly people out there who know who the mother and baby are." Meanwhile, at the hospital, the baby proved to be a fighter.
"She is not out of the woods yet but she is breathing on her own now and the nurses say she will make it," Cornie said. Hospital staff named her Grace April, and her story has made her a celebrity of sorts at the neonatal ward. If her mother isn't located, Ms. Rubushe is tasked with finding her a safe home. Despite her rough first hours of life, Charmaine believes she has a bright future.
"I cannot help but feel that there is some sort of a plan and a purpose for that little girl's life," Charmaine told reporters. "I honestly believe I was meant to find that baby by God as I usually take a different route on my dog walk…I hope if the mother does not come forward that Grace April finds a loving family and makes her mark on this world."