Hannah Upp was just beginning to piece her life back together after going missing for 20 days in NYC. But things took a chilling turn when she vanished not once, but twice more - and has never been seen since...
Her friends consistently described her as energetic and fun and as someone who always had a smile on her face. Hannah Upp always had a great energy to her and just wanted to do good for the world.
She attended the Bryn Mawr liberal arts college just outside of Philadelphia and would eventually become a teacher after graduation. Her friends said she loved dancing, Zumba, and swimming; one friend even joked it was "exhausting being her friend" because of her energy. But everything changed for Hannah in the summer of 2008…
Upp grew up with a brother and her parents in a small town in Oregon, and both her parents were pastors. Although both her parents were American, she grew up in Japanese-American churches after her mother spent time teaching in Japan and was fluent in Japanese.
A friend even described Hannah as "the princess of the church." Growing up, her family was very religious, and together, they were extremely involved in their church. They held traditional values and had relatively strict views, especially her father.
Her parent's religious views and perspectives on theology started to differ severely. By the time Hannah was 15, her parents had divorced. Her father moved overseas to multiple countries to preach, often to indigenous tribes, in countries such as Fiji, Zimbabwe, the Phillippines, and more.
Hannah's mother, Barbara, quit her job as a pastor, and she and her two children moved to Pendle Hill, Philadelphia, a small Quaker town. She and her ex-husband stopped speaking, but Hannah would join her father on these trips from time to time, still maintaining a relationship with her father.
However, as she got older, she felt conflicted with her own religious views. She had been brought up one way, but as time passed, Hannah said she felt more connected to the Quaker community than to the Christian church she attended as a child with her family.
Quakers believe in each person's ability to experience the "light within" or see "that of God in everyone." Generally, Quakerism seeks to experience God directly and is considered a way of life rather than another set of beliefs, and Hannah felt spiritually connected to the denomination.
Hannah went to a liberal arts college just outside of Philadelphia, where she continued to struggle with her religious beliefs and societal norms in general. But, attending a liberal arts college was freeing for Hannah, who would find other like-minded individuals such as herself.
During her junior year, Hannah came out to her father and mother, telling them she had been dating a woman. Her father, a religious man, wasn't as open to the idea, even once arguing that "there is no such human as a natural homosexual." However, Hannah continued to visit her father abroad, maintaining a relationship.
Summer of 2008
After graduation, Hannah moved to New York City. Upp was living in New York, enjoying the city, living with a roommate, and teaching at Thurgood Marshall Middle School in Harlem. But everything changed one August day when the 23-year-old was getting ready for her second year as a middle school teacher and quite literally disappeared into thin air.
The school year was about to start, and Hannah was nowhere to be found. On August 27, Upp put on shorts and a sports bra and went out for a run, and never returned. She knew the first day of school was around the corner, so where could she have gone?
The First Disappearance
The schoolteacher had gone out for a run right near her Hamilton Heights apartment in upper Manhattan, most likely to clear her head before another crazy school year began. However, when that bell rang on the first day of the new school year, Hannah's students were waiting at their desks, with no Hannah to be found.
After realizing she wasn't in class on the first day, friends and family began to reach out to her, but they were met with no response. Hannah's roommate found her wallet, ID, purse, cell phone, and MetroCard all in her bedroom, but again, no signs of Hannah.
Out of Character
It didn't make any sense. Those closest to Hannah knew it was very unlike her to disappear like that, let alone miss the first day of work. According to her friends, Hannah wasn't the type to skip town without giving any notice or telling anyone. So what happened to her?
Her face was quickly plastered all over the city and local newspapers with missing person posters. The news reported her as "Teacher, 23, Disappears Into Thin Air." Upp's loved ones began searching all over the city for her, hoping for a speedy and safe return, asking for the public's help and any tips on her whereabouts.
Those closest to Hannah started a Facebook page dedicated to finding her. The United Federation of Teachers offered a 10,000 dollar reward for any relevant information that could help discover the missing school teacher. Nothing made sense; why would Hannah just disappear?
Two weeks after Hannah's disappearance, things took a sharp turn when security cameras caught Hannah at several locations all over Manhattan. A detective asked her mother, Barbara Bellus, to come down to the 30th precinct in Harlem to identify if the woman on the cameras was Hannah.
Her mom confirmed that it was, in fact, her daughter, and she, in retrospect, said, "I knew there was something off" about how she was acting. Why would her daughter wander around New York City like nothing was wrong? Nothing made sense, but hopes were high that she was okay and would come home soon.
She was first spotted at an Apple Store checking her e-mail. The surveillance footage showed a man approaching Upp, asking if she was the missing woman he had seen on the news, but she confidently told him she was not. She was spotted again two days later at a Starbucks and was seen at multiple New York Sports Clubs around the city.
Twenty days after she went missing, Hannah Upp was found. A captain aboard a Staten Island ferry spotted a woman's body floating on the Hudson River near Manhattan's southern edge, later telling news outlets, "I honestly thought she was dead." A group of people lifted the body out of the water, and it was Hannah.
Although frightened and confused, she was found alive. She was taken to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with dehydration, hypothermia, and severe sunburn. The whole time she was missing, she was frequently moving around NYC, but no one could locate her until she was found nearly three weeks later in the water.
No Memory of What Happened
Even after looking at all the security footage, Hannah had no recollection of what had happened or where she had been the past three weeks. When she was found, she immediately burst into tears, confused about why she was in the water. She even asked her mom, "Why am I wet?" after she was found.
After waking up, she even said she needed to set up her classroom, confused about how much time had passed. In an interview with The New York Times, Hannah said, "I went from going for a run to being in the ambulance. It was like 10 minutes had passed. But it was almost three weeks."
So Many Questions
It's weird," she added. "How do you feel guilty for something you didn't even know you did? It's not your fault, but it's still somehow you." Hannah, her friends, and her family were just thrilled she was home safe and sound, but it was time to get to the bottom of things.
Hannah told The New York Times the whole experience made her "reconsider everything." She began questioning herself, asking, "Who was I before? Who was I then is that part of me? Who am I now?" People even began accusing her of faking the whole situation.
After spending some time in the hospital and in the psychiatric ward, medical professionals were able to diagnose Hannah with a rare form of amnesia known as dissociative fugue. According to Psychology Today, it is a "psychological state in which a person loses awareness of their identity or other important autobiographical information."
Those diagnosed with dissociative fugue "also engage in some form of unexpected travel," and it can last anywhere from a few hours to several years. People who go into a fugue state often can't remember who they are or details of what happened while they were in the unidentified state but continue to do things that they want to do.
Those suffering from dissociative fugue may appear to look normal, but in reality, they are in a stuck fugue state where they've completely lost their own identity. Researchers say some kind of severe trauma often sparks it, but Hannah couldn't recall any traumatic event that could have triggered it.
However, Hannah was getting ready to start a new school year, which is often stressful. "The fact that it's so confusing makes people inclined to dismiss it," said Rachel Aviv, a journalist who wrote about Upp's case for The New Yorker. Regardless, Upp wasn't going to let the incident define her.
The Second Disappearance
Upp was doing her best to heal and return to her normal self as she questioned the past few weeks of her life. So, after living in Manhattan, she was hired as a teaching assistant at a Montessori school in Maryland. But as the 2013 school year approached, Hannah had gone missing again.
After her wallet and cell phone were found on a train in Kensington, her mother was notified, and it immediately hit her: Could Hannah be having another fugue episode? It was also reported she hadn't slept at her apartment the night before. What was going on?
Found Alive Again
Two days after Hannah had vanished for a second time, Barbara received a phone call at 10:30 at night from an unknown number. Bellus heard the woman on the other line saying, "Mom?" and immediately knew it was her daughter. Where was she?
The next thing she knew, she was found in a creek in the Wheaton, Maryland area, with a shopping cart beside her. Had she gone into another fugue state? It definitely seemed like it. The police offered to put an ankle bracelet on her, but she declined, and her mother supported her decision. "She refused to be defined by this."
Moving to St. Thomas
After the Maryland disappearance, she moved to the Caribbean island of St. Thomas in 2013. She was dedicated to learning more about the Montessori method of education and had a great opportunity to exercise her skills as a teacher there. She was absolutely thriving there.
She had great friends and a vibrant social life; she loved the water and was an excellent swimmer. A parent of one of her students at the school even described her as a "modern-day Mary Poppins." She lived and worked on the island for four years, but when the new school year began in 2017, Hannah would be missing again for a third time.
Hurricane Irma hit the island on September 6, 2017 just a week after Hannah began her fourth year of teaching. Residents of the island, including Hannah's good friends and ex-boyfriend began evacuating, taking "mercy ships" to Puerto Rico and other nearby safe spaces, but Hannah refused.
According to her friends, she wasn't acting like herself leading up to the storm. Still, it was the beginning of a new school year, and an impending hurricane was on the horizon, which could explain her unusual behavior. Not to mention another Category 5 hurricane, Maria, was on its way.
The Third Disappearance
Just a few days after Hurricane Irma hit, Hannah left her house before work to go swimming, which wasn't unusual for her. According to her friends, she would swim in the ocean nearly every day, finding the "world underwater just so peaceful and so magical." However, the waters were rough with the natural disaster at hand.
The schoolteacher left a note telling her roommate she was going for a swim around 8 am one morning and has yet to be heard from since. Concern immediately grew the next day when Hannah didn't show up for a faculty meeting. Her friends on the island and in the States hadn't heard from her in three days.
Looking for Hannah
After learning that no one had spoken to Hannah the past few days, friends and family were immediately concerned she could have landed in another fugue state. Those close to her went straight to her favorite beach on the island, Sapphire, where she often swan and snorkeled, hoping to find her.
Once they arrived, they found her sundress, sandals, and car keys on one of the bar stools at the beach restaurants. Workers had found her belongings in the sand while clearing out the mess from the storm. Her car was found in the parking lot, with her wallet, passport, purse, and cell phone inside.
The Search Continues
At this point, a good friend of Upp's had contacted Jake Bradley, a trained emergency technician, who was in charge of organizing search parties for those missing during the storms to help search for Hannah. The coast guard sent out three helicopters to conduct searches, but there was no sign of the 32-year-old.
They had to put their search to stop because of the approaching Hurricane Maria. But after it had passed, they continued looking for her in homeless shelters, hospitals, beaches, and other places those displaced from the storm might have been. But even with her face everywhere and extensive searches, no one recognized Hannah.
Bradley told The U.S. Sun they had "set up a Facebook page basically for persons in need of help and for missings person" and used it to say, "Hey, this person has been found, and they're Ok." However, no one had written anything about Hannah, causing more and more worry that something could have happened to her in the Hurricane.
A month after her daughter's disappearance, Barbara Bellus decided to come up to the island and investigate, but she couldn't find anyone who had any memories of seeing her daughter. For years she spent mornings sitting at a cafe on Sapphire Beach, hoping that her daughter would appear in the water and come home.
Hannah's mother never wanted "to even entertain the idea that she didn't come out of the water, or that if she did come out of the water, she found help and made it to Puerto Rico or was hiding out in someone's house," according to Bradley. But after some time, the investigation was slowing down.
Bradley later revealed that he was "pretty confident that she was in that fugue state" after seeing the "most traumatic event she's ever seen in her life," Storm Irma. The high-stress situation could have triggered her condition. But after checking everywhere and doing their best, the hope died down.
"There were a lot of people who thought they saw her, but we were able to rule that out with surveillance footage," according to Bradley. "There was one woman in Puerto Rico who we were particularly excited about, but again, it turned out not to be her."
Over the years, there have been a few supposed Upp sightings, the most recent being posted on the Find Hannah Upp Facebook page in 2019, but according to Bellus, as of 2021, "There are no immediate active leads at this time," but they will "continue to pursue any credible leads."
There are a few theories surrounding what could have happened to Hannah Up in 2017. According to friends and Bradley, she was a strong swimmer and spoke Spanish fluently, so it could have been possible that she was able to swim to another island and live with a completely new identity.
However, the search teams in charge of looking for the schoolteacher did check outer-lying islands at the time and came back with no signs of Hannah. It is still unclear if she was dealing with another incident of fugue, but in that case, she could still be alive and eventually remember who she is.
Another possible theory by Bradley was that "she had gotten out into a current that took her to one of the abandoned islands, and that she was just sitting on a beach somewhere, waiting for somebody to come get her." Others worry the current would have been too strong, and despite her strong swimming skills, she could have drowned.
A more unlikely theory Bradley had begun to "explore was if someone could've had beef with her and used the storm as an opportunity to 'get rid' of her." However, there were "no signs of any problems" from her, as she was extremely loved by friends and colleagues alike.
Similarities in the Disappearances
At this point, Hannah's mother still remains hopeful that her daughter will return home one day. However, Bradley believes there "would've been a trace of her by now if we were going to find her," but doesn't call it "impossible." Although, it is curious to look at the three separate cases and diagnose their similarities.
The first time was right before the school year started in Manhattan. The second time, she was living in Maryland, and it was again when the school year began. And the third and most mysterious time was when school had started. And two times, she had been found in the water, and the last time, she had gone missing going swimming.
To this day, there is still so much we don't know about fugue states. .2% of the population is predisposed to this condition, but it is unclear how and why it happens. Some wonder if it is inherited or whether Hannah naturally grew up as a wanderer, which could have led to her condition.
People in these states frequently adopt new identities, but Hannah had completely lost hers along the way. After the first disappearance, Hannah rarely talked about her condition, choosing to live her life to the fullest and not let it control her. However, five years later, friends and family still have no answers.
With the disappearance pattern feeling oddly similar each time, we can't help but wonder about a few things related to the details of the events. Why are her belongings always found near water? Her mother wonders if it has a religious connection the Old Testament or baptism.
Some wondered how each time it was around the new school year when she vanished, asking why she felt strangely "distant" leading up to the time. Some are even questioning if she faked the whole thing. However, Upp is still missing to this day, leaving those closest to her with many unanswered questions and dwindling hopes.