On September 16, 2008, Hannah Upp, then 23, was found floating face-down in the New York Harbor near the southern edge of Manhattan. She was wearing just jogging shorts and a sports bra when she was spotted by a Staten Island ferry captain.
Almost three weeks earlier, on August 28, the schoolteacher had gone out for a run near her Hamilton Heights apartment in upper Manhattan. The next thing she remembered, she later told a reporter, was waking up in an ambulance after being plucked from the water by her rescuers.
“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,” Upp later recalled about her prolonged episode of amnesia, according to The New York Times.
Upp, a Pace University graduate student and a Spanish teacher on the verge of starting a new school year at Harlem’s Thurgood Marshall Academy, had left behind her ID, phone and wallet when she headed out on that day, the Times reports. Where did she go? What happened to her in those three blanked-out weeks? And, after disappearing again in 2017 (more on that shortly), where is Upp now?
While recovering from hypothermia and dehydration at a Staten Island hospital, Upp learned she was suffering from a rare type of amnesia called dissociative fugue. This causes sufferers to suddenly forget their own identity, though they may appear normal to random onlookers. It’s usually sparked by severe psychological trauma, according to Verywell Mind. Fugue can prompt sufferers to travel to unexpected places, in unexpected ways, which is how Upp later said she ended up in the water.
“The fact that it’s so confusing makes people inclined to dismiss it,” says Rachel Aviv, a journalist who wrote about Upp’s case for The New Yorker, in A&E’s 2019 special Vanished in Paradise: The Untold Story.
During Upp’s New York City fugue episode, she was caught on surveillance camera entering her gym to shower and checking her email in an Apple store, even chatting with a classmate there. When Upp’s mother, Barbara Bellus, saw footage of her daughter talking to the acquaintance in the store, Bellus noted, “I knew it was her, and I knew there was something off.”
Episodes of dissociative fugue can last hours, days or even years.
[Watch Vanished in Paradise: The Untold Story on A&E Crime Central.]
In Vanished in Paradise Dr. David Spiegel of Stanford University says fugue has been “the stuff of…psychiatric literature for hundreds of years.” “[Sufferers] don’t usually come from absolutely normal lives,” he says. (Just two-tenths of a percent of the population is affected.)
In the special, journalist Rebecca Marx, who interviewed Upp months after her NYC rescue, says Upp seemed “baffled” by what had happened to her. “Who am I now? Am I that missing teacher? I don’t want to be that missing teacher,” she said in one audio recording of her conversation with Marx.
Upp later moved to Maryland, where she experienced another episode of dissociative fugue in September 2013, when she vanished for two days after being spotted walking near the Kensington school where she worked as a teacher’s assistant. Upp was later recovered from a creek in the Wheaton-Glenmont, Maryland area, with a shopping cart beside her.
Her most mysterious disappearance—and the one that remains unsolved to this day—occurred in 2017, after Upp had relocated to St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, three years prior.
In Vanished in Paradise, Upp’s friends portray her as a vibrant member of the local community, involved in dancing, swimming and Zumba. She taught at a local Montessori school and enjoyed an active social life. Her best friend on the island, Maggie Guzman, even joked that it could be “exhausting being her friend” because of Upp’s high energy.
Trouble began brewing before Hurricane Irma barreled into the island on September 6, 2017. Guzman says in the special that Upp hadn’t been acting like herself in the days leading up to the storm. After Irma—which Upp survived, communicating with friends and family throughout—islanders prepared to be hit by another storm, the approaching Hurricane Maria, which landed on September 20.
On September 14, 2017, Hannah left her house for a beach swim around 8 a.m. Coworkers were concerned when she didn’t show up for a later staff meeting at school—and Upp has never been seen since.
Her car was found near Sapphire Beach with her passport, cash and credit cards inside. Her sandals and sarong were found stacked on a stool at a beach bar. Was she, once again, drawn to water during a fugue state? Did she drown? Swim to a nearby island and start a new life? Hop on one of the rescue boats moving locals off-site in advance of the oncoming hurricane?
Though Upp’s case has stagnated over the years, her mother has managed to keep the hope alive, and she continues to search for her daughter to this day. She even moved to St. Thomas to be closer to the search. “I think there’s a strong possibility that she’s alive,” Bellus says in the A&E special, but Albion George, the local detective working Upp’s case, seems far less sure.
An adult skeleton washed ashore on an uninhabited island near St. Thomas in September 2018, according to NamUS, a resource center for missing, unidentified and unclaimed person cases across the U.S. Unfortunately, the remains were too decomposed to retain any identifying information, so it’s unknown who those remains belonged to.
In a March 2021 statement to A&E Real Crime, Bellus writes of her daughter’s case: “There are no immediate active leads at this time. We continue to pursue any credible leads.”
The search to discover exactly what happened to Upp sadly lingers on.