HOPEWELL TWP. — Like the humans in the vehicle with her, the 7-pound Pomeranian survived a rollover crash on Interstate 376, though the frightened little dog immediately ran away.
Search teams spent days combing the snow-covered woods near the Hopewell Township exit crash site, hoping to find the 2-year-old pooch safe and sound.
A full 21 days after the accident, the dog was found healthy, next to a wooden cross, in the woods by the Independence Township line.
The dog’s name is Noel. She went missing Christmas Eve.
And searchers and well-wishers say this is nothing short of a miracle.
Back home now in New Brighton, Noel is doing fine.
“She’s back to her normal self,” said 19-year-old Colton Ball, who, along with his grandfather, Ken Pearce, owns the spry and loving dog. “Thank God we found her.”
Noel got a clean bill of health this week from a veterinarian who updated all her shots. Donna Prince Kunzmann, one of the volunteers who led in the search mission, gave Noel a ride to the veterinary appointment, since Pearce’s SUV was totaled in the wreck.
Dusty Popovich, a member of the nonprofit Animal Finders of Beaver County, paid the veterinary bill. Wet Ur Paws Dog Wash & Grooming in Hopewell offered to give Noel doggy spa treatment for free.
Vietnam veteran Pearce suffered a brain bleed and bruising from the accident; his grandson, Ball, sustained scrapes and bruises.
“But we’re doing OK now,” said Ball, an aide at Providence Care Center and student at Community College of Beaver County.
“We just want to thank everyone who went out looking for her,” Pearce said.
The crash & its aftermath
A thin layer of snow had begun to cover Interstate 376 at mile marker 46.5 near the Hopewell exit at 8:39 p.m. on Christmas Eve, as Pearce steered his Ford Explorer toward home after a visit with Ball’s sister in West Virginia
Noel nestled in her pet bed anchored in the backseat.
Realizing the highway was getting icy, Pearce slowed the vehicle and shifted into the slow lane where the slippery pavement suddenly sent the vehicle careening off the road, clipping a road sign and rolling over a few times.
“I remember us going up and down, up and down, and the lights all shutting off as things were flying all around me,” Ball said. “There was a window broken above me so I crawled out.”
Ball feared the worst for his grandad, until he heard him moaning from inside the vehicle. Ball called 911 and then looked for Noel, spying her unoccupied dog bed on the ground.
“We think she got thrown from the car,” Ball said.
Ambulances arrived. So did Pennsylvania state police, to whom Ball gave a description of Noel, before heading to the hospital.
Released from care late that night, Colton returned to the scene to search for Noel, and spoke with police who said they had spotted the dog and chased after her, but she eluded them. The police then got a dispatch call to another accident a short distance away, so they broke off the search.
The police spotted terrified little Noel headed toward nearby woods that locals say are inhabited by coyotes.
Through freezing temperatures and eight inches of snow, Noel somehow endured, as nearly seven days later, motorists spotted her along busy Route 376. Three people pulled their vehicles over to try to catch the dog, but she high-tailed it back into the woods.
Volunteer search teams already had rallied.
Pearce’s younger sister, Darlene Stone, had notified Animal Finders of Beaver County, which specializes in such searches. Members Kunzmann, Popovic and Hope Fritz supplied humane traps and cameras in the hope of catching Noel.
Mike Davies searched the wooded hills for hours with a drone; fellow volunteers like John Davies and Susan Brammer regularly checked traps and drainage grates, hung flyers and hiked the woods in quest of Noel.
More people reported Noel sightings. On Jan. 2, a motorist spotted her near power lines on Independence Road. Two days after that came a sighting near Bryson Road in Independence.
The Animal Finders moved their traps and cameras to keep up with the areas where Noel had been seen.
“Many in a group, including myself, kept watch over the traps with virtual cameras and when they didn’t work, taking shifts through the night to check traps and to let raccoons and cats out of those traps,” Kunzmann said. “I and others posted hundreds of flyers throughout the area, from Moon Township to Monaca.”
Kunzmann began stopping anyone she’d see outside their home on Independence Road to hand out mini flyers asking them to call if they spotted Noel.
Brittany Smith had seen the flyer on Facebook, though it wasn’t on her mind on Jan. 14, as she walked her two Labrador retrievers in a wooded area where her grandfather’s ashes were spread seven years ago and commemorated with a cross. As the two dogs approached the familiar wooden cross, they suddenly insisted on going in the opposite direction than usual, toward a thicket of dead branches, grapevines and brush.
“My dogs began sniffing a fallen tree and that’s when I saw something white out of the corner of my eye,” Smith said.
Smith, an assistant district attorney for Beaver County, instantly recognized the shivering, frightened Noel from the Animal Finders’ Facebook post, she said.
Worried Noel would be scared by her two big dogs and then bolt, Smith phoned her mom to bring a leash, along with food to lure Noel out from the protective brush.
Mom grabbed the first food she could think of, Cheerios, and hustled to the scene, taking the Labrador retrievers back home with her.
Smith hunched down and gently encouraged Noel to come toward her, lightly tossing Cheerios in the dog’s direction.
“She gradually began inching closer to me, and was crunching on the cereal,” Smith said. “She was very interested in eating.”
After 45 minutes of coaxing, and aided by food reinforcements of American cheese also from her mom, Smith earned Noel’s trust enough to cautiously approach.
“I got close enough for her to sniff my glove, and then it got to the point I felt I could pick her up,” Smith said. “Once I picked her up, she never tried to bite me or escape. She was happy with her situation.”
With the pooch safely scooped into her arms, Smith went to her car, tracked down the pet owners’ phone number from the Animal Finders’ Facebook post, and called the family to provide the good news.
Pearce’s sister took the call, which Smith turned into a FaceTime exchange, so Pearce could see for herself their precious pet was alive and well.
Noel cuddled in Smith’s lap on the drive to New Brighton, where her family reunion awaited.
“I tried to put her in a box en route to her owner, but she kept wanting to snuggle,” Smith said. “My mom gently pet her on the ride to see her owner, and she relaxed and fell asleep.”
“I’m just happy for them,” Smith said. “That would be a terrible feeling for your dog to be missing.”
Ball said he was overjoyed to learn Noel was safe.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “She was gone for three weeks. I figured someone else had her, or something really bad happened because there are coyotes in the area where she went missing.”
When Noel finally returned home and saw her family, she got ecstatic.
“She was flipping around in my arms, licking my face,” Ball said.
Noel slept for many hours that night, walking around with a slight limp the next morning, which the veterinarian determined was caused by a bunch of burrs stuck in her paw. They were promptly removed.
Noel seems back to normal now, her owners said, following Ball around from room to room as she always did. Her story of survival and perseverance has touched many people.
“Many prayers for this little dog were answered,” Kunzmann said. “We are hearing about cancer patients that were searching for her. Her post on Facebook was shared 2.5 thousand times with over 800 comments. She was a little lost celebrity.”
Noel endured “against all odds of a 7-pound Pomeranian,” Kunzmann said. “She’s a little warrior.”
“Somehow, this little girl survived for three weeks in the cold and snow, with no food or water. But it was there, snuggled down by that cross, that she found her way home.”