‘I said the odds are gonna be very slim. But I seen how emotional she was and I just felt like I had to find ’em’
A clear garbage bag. A KFC bucket. Pokemon card wrappers.
Those were the clues leading searchers through thousands of garbage bags, scores of diapers and hundreds of bits of paper towel as they searched for five precious rings lost in Cape Breton, N.S.
“It was a whole lotta gross,” said J.B. O’Brien, a waste management foreman with the Cape Breton Regional Municipality. “You got a lot of stuff that’s in the garbage. You’ve got animal feces, diapers, a lot of food waste and other stuff in there.”
O’Brien got pulled into the — literal — mess on the Friday before the Labour Day long weekend, when he got word missing rings had ended up in the trash.
Alexandra Stokal, a realtor in Sydney, N.S., had taken her five rings off to clean them on the Thursday. All had sentimental value: Her wedding ring, a new engagement ring, an anniversary ring, a ring from her mother to remember her dad after he passed and a ring from her grandmother. She had put them in a bit of paper towel to dry.
“I wear those rings every day because they’re so important to me,” Stokal said.
But, on Friday morning her husband, Ryan O’Donnell, swept the detritus off the kitchen counter and shelving, and into a garbage bag. Out to the curb they went.
The garbage truck driver picked up the trash and off she went to the other houses on her route.
Later in the day, Stokal was looking for her rings, to put them on before going shopping.
They were gone.
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A panicked phone call to O’Donnell confirmed he had, like a dutiful husband, picked up the stray bits of trash and put them out to be collected.
“So, of course, in a flustered panic, I hang up on him,” said Stokal. “I ran out to my little Fiat, got in. Don’t even think I have shoes on, and started chasing garbage trucks.”
She found one, though not the same truck. Phone calls were made, to figure out which truck had the bag from the Stokal-O’Donnell household, and when it would be finishing its route.
Stokal returned home for grimy clothes and boots. Then, it was off to the garbage pile at the collection facility, where she began rooting through garbage bags, surrounded by rats and seagulls.
“I’m not a very religious person, but my grandmother always says to pray to Saint Anthony if you lose something, which I did the entire time I was in there taking in the garbage,” Stokal said.
O’Brien was able to identify the truck that picked up the rings, and estimate that they should be located in the middle, but towards the front of the truck, based on the route.
“I kind of had a point to start from,” said O’Brien. “We all jumped in on it there and started pulling bags apart.”
Still, he didn’t like their odds.
“People throw out like phones or wallets and pictures and stuff like that or blankets or something that they look for, but 99 per cent of the time, it’s something that was already pushed into a big pile or loaded out. It’s not too often we find anything,” said O’Brien.
O’Brien and Stokal sifted through the trash.
They were joined by other members from the garbage crew, using bits of mail as clues, looking at the addresses to tell if they were searching through bags in the same part of town, Stokal said.
“My gloves are like, saturated and I’m trying to be a big girl and working through it,” recalled Stokal.
The search probably took between three and four hours, she estimates. They found clues: COVID-19 tests, a clear bag, and KFC wrappings. The catch, though, was that the compactor in the truck had torn the bag apart. It was a mess. A “smelly, long day,” Stokal said.
“So now you’re looking at an area that has probably thousands upon thousands of pieces of dirty paper towel, right? But then we found an envelope with a thank you card from clients of mine and Ryan,” Stokal said. “We knew we were in the right area.”
Finally, another worker, Chris Ward, found the crumpled pieces of paper towel containing the rings.
“I didn’t even know what to say, it was incredible,” said Stokal.
For the crew, it was a memorable day.
“I said the odds are gonna be very slim. But I seen how emotional she was and I just felt like I had to find ’em,” said O’Brien. “If I had to spend all night to look through every bag, I would have.”
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