Photo helps New York family find missing son

(CNN) — A young man huddles under a thick gray blanket, pressed against a steam grate as he braces himself against the biting cold.

While on assignment over the weekend, an Associated Press photographer took his photo to show the effects of unusually  cold weather sweeping across the country.

The man, who only gave his first name — Nick — was a face in a crowd of homeless people huddling to stay warm on a Washington street, just blocks from the U.S. Capitol.

But all that changed when the photograph appeared in USA Today Sunday.

Hundreds of miles away in an upstate New York town, the man was much more than a face in a crowd.

Nicholas Simmons was missing.

And a mother who saw the photo in the newspaper realized she’d found her son.

In Rochester, New York, the man’s face appeared in local news reports last week as police and frantic family members searched for him.

Police in the town of Greece, New York, said Simmons, 20, disappeared New Year’s Day from his home, driving away in a red Buick with only with what he was wearing: plaid pajama pants, a gray T-shirt and sneakers. He left his wallet and cell phone behind.

Family members and authorities had been looking for him for days without any luck.

There were few leads without a phone or credit cards to track him.

“We couldn’t do a lot of things we normally would do in a missing person’s case,” said Capt. Patrick Phelan of the Greece Police Department.

But the photo became the answer to the Simmons family’s prayers.

The family learned about the photo through a public Facebook page they’d set up, according to an article published in the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle.

Simmons’ sister, Hannah Simmons, sent a message on Twitter to USA Today reporter Natalie DiBlasio, who wrote the story.

“Please contact me,” the tweet read. “You wrote an article for USA today that features a picture of my missing brother.”

Family members also reached out to AP photographer Jacquelyn Martin, who captured the image.

Communication between Simmons’ family, DiBlasio, Martin, and the Greece Police Department helped the Washington Metropolitan Police track down Simmons.

Now he’s reunited with his family, police said.

Washington Metro Police Officer Araz Alali said he’s considered a “missing person returned.”

On the Facebook page, his mother Michelle Simmons said she was stunned.

“We are going to get him home safe, and this is by far the greatest example of God’s love and divine intervention I have ever experienced,” she wrote, according to the Democrat & Chronicle.

“I am beyond able to put into words how I am feeling.”

It’s unclear why Simmons left home and what brought him to the streets of Washington.

According to police, Simmons is fine physically but distraught.

He was taken to George Washington University Hospital for evaluation, Phelan said.

The hospital declined to comment, citing privacy restrictions.

Phelan said police were told there was a “discussion” between Simmons and his parents that may have made him leave home.

“There was no indication or precursors to believe he would do something like this,” Phelan said.

The police official described Simmons as a normal 20-year-old living at home with his parents and working part-time jobs at local fast food chains.

Just a day after her brother was found, Hannah Simmons sent Martin a message of appreciation on Twitter Monday.

“You have saved our family,” she wrote. “Thank you so much.”

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