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Satellite Image Search For Missing Plane Led by San Jose Teenager

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When a plane carrying five members of a South Bay family crashed in December, more than 2,000 people joined a Facebook group to help scour satellite images for signs of where the plane went down. Very few of those people realized their leader was a seventeen-year-old girl. For her effort Susannah was recently named a regional winner of the Kohl's Cares Scholarship Program. (Published Friday, Jul 25, 2014)

For a period of nearly two months this past winter, if Susannah Goldberg wasn't sleeping, she was on Facebook.

She cut back on her schoolwork. Her siblings took over some of her regular chores. "It was pretty much around the clock," Susannah says of the time she spent at the kitchen table with her laptop open in front of her.

Typical, technology-addicted, social-network-obsessed 17-year-old, right?

Not even close.

For evidence to the contrary, Susannah points to her very, un-smart phone. "It's an old-style flip phone," she says. "I use it to make phone calls. I can text if it is something important."

Susannah Goldberg created a Facebook page to aid in the searching of satellite imagery for the wreck of the plane carrying her scripture teacher, Dale Smith, and four members of his family. Garvin Thomas

So what was up with the Facebook marathon? Helping to bring peace to a grieving San Jose family, that's what.

Susannah, a home-schooled, San Jose teenager, had found herself, unexpectedly, in charge of a 2,000-member Facebook group dedicated to combing through tens of thousands of satellite images looking for evidence of a plane that had crashed in the Idaho wilderness piloted by her scripture teacher, Dale Smith, and carrying four members of his family.

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"At the time it was gratifying to do something to help and not be helpless waiting for news, letting the months slip by," Susannah says.

Dale Smith's single-engine Beechcraft went missing on December 1st on a flight from Baker City, Oregon to Butte, Montana. The last transmission from the pilot was that he was experiencing problems due to icing and was looking for directions to land at the Johnson Creek (Idaho) airport. The plane never reached the airport.

Silicon Valley technology executive Dale Smith and four members of his family were killed with their plane crashed on December 1, 2013 in a remote area of Idaho. It took searchers more than a month to find the wreckage. Janis Smith

A ground search was launched but the snow-covered back-country proved difficult terrain to cover. Susannah says she would have trudged through the snow herself if it had been possible. Still, she wanted to do something.

That is when she heard about Tomnod.

Tomnod is a service that provides satellite imagery for searches just like the one being undertaken in Idaho. The images provided, though, cover immense areas of the earth and must be divided into thousands of smaller images to enable individual computer users to scan them for any signs of a plane or damage from a crash.

The more eyeballs looking at images, the more ground can be covered. In spite of her relative inexperience with social networks, Susannah knew Facebook was the place to go.

Susannah started the Tomnod: Smith Plane Search Facebook group in spite of doubts she had that she was up for the task. "There were a lot of prayers, a lot of anxiety about being able to step up to this role I had taken on, somehow." Like any good leader, though, Susannah quickly learned the power of delegating.

At its height, more than 2,000 people joined Susannah's Facebook page to help in the search for the Smith family's plane Garvin Thomas

"Over time I could see who had a good grasp on it and who people were listening to, so I asked them to be heads of teams." Susannah says most of the people she dealt with probably not aware they were being lead by someone who hadn't even graduated high school.

Still, under her leadership thousands of images were scanned and points of interest for searchers flagged. Even after the official search was called off, two weeks after the plane went down, Susannah and her team continued their effort, forwarding possible search areas to private searchers who continue the effort.

It was one of those private searchers, Dale Smith's brother Dellon, who eventually found the wreck on January 10, three-and-a-half miles from Johnson Creek Airport.

Susannah says she is glad the Smith family got the news they needed to hear. She is also glad to have been able to contribute, in one way, in the search effort. For her work, Susannah was recently awarded a $1,000 scholarship as a regional winner of the Kohl's Cares Scholarship Program. She is now eligible for $10,000 national scholarship to be announced in July.

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