What started out as a normal day at work for Billy soon ended with a remarkable discovery. After finding a mysterious bottle glimmering on the surface of the Yazoo River, his life was changed forever. Here's his story.
Where It All Started
Billy Mitchell had worked at Big River Shipbuilders for a while, and was pretty good at his job. On April 6, 2022, he got to work and went about his duties, like any other day - but it was far from it...
The company he worked at, which was based in Vicksburg, Mississippi, offered boat repair, maintenance, and construction services. "Family owned and operated since 1988, Big River Shipbuilders, Inc. has been involved in the maritime industry," read the "About" section of their Facebook page.
A Mysterious Glimmer
So, Billy was on a job on the Mississippi side of the Yazoo River on April 6, on what he thought would be an ordinary day at work. The employee shared that he and his coworkers were hard at work salvaging sunken floats, which are smaller versions of a barge.
He was in the middle of one of his routine tasks when he noticed something strange glimmering in the water - and it wasn't the sun's reflection on the river's surface. An object had been floating along the canal above one of the barges, and Billy caught sight of it just as the barge was lifted.
Getting A Closer Look
He peered at the object that had washed up near him. He could tell it was green, but he couldn’t quite make out what it was. When he got closer, he realized it was a bottle. He almost looked away and thought nothing of it until he noticed something hidden inside the bottle.
His curiosity got the better of him; the bottle now had his full attention. He looked around him - his coworkers had continued their tasks, unaware of what had happened. If there was any way he was going to find out what the mysterious object in the bottle was, he’d have to do it alone.
What Was Inside?
When he finally got his hands on the glass bottle, he could tell it had been traveling in the water for quite a long time. The glass material had worn off from what appeared to be months, or even years, of water and heat. But what fascinated him most of all was its contents.
A closer examination told him the small, thin object hiding in the bottle was a piece of paper that appeared to be partially wet - thanks to the water from the river that made its way into the bottle. He worked cautiously to get the paper out, not wanting to damage it. And after a few tries, he was successful.
The Handwritten Letter
He had been afraid of damaging the fragile material that had been in contact with water for who knows how long. He carefully unfolded it and smoothed it out, only to have his jaw drop in surprise when he saw what it actually was: a handwritten letter.
He stared at the wrinkly piece of paper in his hand. The water had dampened the paper so much that large parts of it were illegible, and other parts of the paper were torn right out of it because the water had weakened the paper and made it so brittle.
Something Out of a Movie
Still, he could feel his heart racing at the unexpected discovery he'd just made. He had so many questions in his head, he didn't know where to begin or think. He wanted so desperately to know whose it was, when it was written, whom for, and how it ended up in his hands that day…
“I was shocked and excited,” Mitchell later recalled of the exciting moment. “You hear about messages in a bottle, but I never thought I’d find one in the canal over here.” To the employee who had headed out to an ordinary day at work, it certainly felt like something out of a movie.
Breaking the News
Excited about his discovery and eager to find out more about the letter, he carefully tucked it back into the bottle and rushed back to the office to share what he'd found with his coworkers. He was happy to see they were as excited as he was and quickly rushed to help him decipher the message in the bottle.
Since there were damp and fragile bits of paper that had been torn because of the water, the message proved rather difficult to read. Several chunks of the letter were missing, and it was hard to make out the words that had been written on the paper in cursive.
A Rich History
However, that doesn't mean they weren't able to understand anything from the letter. After a few minutes of examining it, they could tell it was written by a child from Oxford, Mississippi, and it appeared the message could have been part of a class project in 1989.
They were also able to deduce that it had been launched into Sardis Lake, about 295 miles from where it was found, in 1989. The group of employees finally concluded that it might be possible to track down the original owner of the bottle - and they were excited to get started on the mission.
Finding the Owner
They informed Brad Babb, safety and compliance officer with the company, of what Billy had found... and he was in just as much awe as the rest. The discovery of the green bottle in the river by one of the company's own employees had fascinated him. And he was excited to help them find its owner.
Babb called several schools in the Oxford area, hoping to get in touch with a teacher or principal who may have recognized the handwriting. The people he spoke to were captivated by the story he told them, but confessed that they couldn't tell whose handwriting it was.
Calling For Help
After debating the fastest and most realistic way to reach the owner of the bottle, they finally arrived at the most obvious conclusion. So, he decided to post a photo of the message on social media. He took to the company’s FB page, which has 1,216 followers.
They normally update with services and projects and new things they’re doing. Followers loved to come along for the journey. But this time, the news they had to share was quite different. They weren’t sure whether their followers would be interested in an old glass bottle, but they knew they had to give it a shot.
"Please Spread the Word"
“Today our Salvage crew found a bottle with the following message inside. Time has not been kind to the letter. We believe this was done by Oxford, MS student with the last name of Tahl back in 1989. We would love to let that person know we found it. Please spread the word and help us find this person,” they wrote.
The team added a photo of the blotched pieces of paper from the bottle, and people were instantly intrigued. Like all other adventures the page posted, the followers were just as excited about the discovery of the green bottle as the workers themselves.
The post, which was shared by 125 Facebook users, quickly gained tons of attention online. Users even outside the company’s normal following were now aware of the touching discovery, and were keen to help Big River Shipbuilders find the owner of the handwriting.
The number of likes on the post quickly shot to 50, as more and more people helped spread the word. The workers saw a glimmer of hope: They knew how viral news like this could get, especially when social media was involved. But would they eventually locate their mystery traveler?
A Glimmer of Hope?
A few days passed, and the post received more and more comment - but no lead that could be traced back to the person that left behind the string of questions waiting to be answered. The days went by, and the crew began to wonder if they’d ever solve the mystery.
The team worked while they waited for the identity of the unknown explorer to come to light. But it was all well worth the wait when a comment posted by a user named Evan Michele appeared on the post. Was this the clue they’d been waiting for this whole time?
The Comment That Changed Everything
One of the company's employees had sat down to check the business' Facebook page one day to see if there were any updates about the identity of the owner of the bottle. The minute he refreshed the page, he spotted the one comment that changed everything...
“Check your messages. I think I’ve figured it out. Just didn’t want to publicly publish personal information online,” read the comment. After doing a little research of their own, they knew they were definitely onto something. So they raced to the phone to make a phone call…
An Unexpected Alert
Dr. Eric Dahl’s phone suddenly began to blare while he was at church in his hometown of Oxford, Mississippi. After taking a quick glance at the number on his screen, he decided to answer his phone - something he normally wouldn’t do while at church…
However, since the doctor was on call that evening, he knew there was a possibility the phone call could be from someone trying to contact him from the hospital. So, Eric decided to go against his habits and answer the call. And it's a good thing he did…
A Whirlwind of Emotions
The caller was from a construction company in the maritime industry that had contacted him after finding a bottle in the Mississippi River. Inside, they found a message written in 1989 by a student from Oxford, Mississippi, with the last name ‘Tahl.’ He couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
His eyes filled with tears as he heard the caller inform him of the letter. He never thought his beloved son would be able to find his way back to him after all these years. Several moments of silence followed Babb’s news to him, interrupted only by the faint snuffling sounds Eric made as he sobbed.
The Class Project
Brian Dahl, born in 1977, was the first son of Eric and Melanie Dahl. When he was in sixth grade at Oxford University school, his teacher had set up a class project for the students. They each wrote their names on pieces of paper, along with a personal message, which they then placed into small, glass bottles.
Each of the students then capped their bottle, sealed it with wax, and tossed it into the river. According to Martha Burnett, Brain’s sixth-grade teacher, she wanted to teach them how the bottles would then flow from the Delta River into the Mississippi River.
A Divine Intervention
However, there is one unfortunate part of Brian’s story we haven’t mentioned yet. The young boy, who eventually grew into a kind man, sadly passed away several years before his message was found. His parents were devastated, knowing they had lost their boy forever.
However, the news brought them hope that maybe, just maybe, he wasn’t as far away as they’d thought. And to think, it was a mere coincidence that Eric Dahl answered his phone that day at church. According to him, he interpreted the whole situation as a form of divine intervention.
"It Was Miraculous"
“It’s like something in a fictitious novel or something you’d see on TV,” Eric Dahl gushed. “To see Brian’s handwriting from when he was 11 or 12 years old — it was miraculous,” the emotional father revealed. “It was a gift from on high. We’re a praying family, and this is a part of God’s providence.”
The boy’s mother also commented on how she felt after reading Brian’s words. “It was just kind of incredible to me that could happen,” Melanie Dahl said. “I didn’t remember the whole project, so it was a surprise. The fact it was my son who wrote that 33 years ago — what are the odds of that bottle being found?”
The Last Laugh
She recalled her son’s personality - especially his sense of humor - and how it wasn’t unlike him to do something like this. “He was really funny,” she said. “He had a very quick wit.” According to her, the discovery of the bottle after all these years was something he’d find humor in.
Like her husband, Melanie Dahl believed her son Brian was in heaven and that he watched over the people he loved and his family in particular. She imagined her son watching as they read the contents of the letter. “If that’s true, he’s getting a really big kick out of this,” she later added.
"I Probably Cried 3 Times"
After learning what had really happened to the boy the company had so desperately been trying to identify the past few days, Brad Babb, who had posted the message on social media, was in disbelief. He later shared, “I spent 30 to 45 minutes talking to the dad, and I probably cried 3 times.”
“He said over and over, his son was his best friend,” the employee continued. “For a dad who’s lost a child and being able to give that back to him, that means so much more than words can describe. We’re a small family business, and we all have kids. We can all sympathize.”
A Heartwarming Story
Reporters were even able to get in touch with Martha Burnett, the teacher who took Brian and his sixth-grade classmates to the river the day they wrote their personal messages and threw them into the river. And what she had to say brought a smile to our faces.
“It was actually the beginning of the year,” Burnett recalled. “It was one of the early stories in our reading book. The story had to do with the fact that over time, people had put messages in bottles. We decided to do that. We decided it was a class project.”
A Second Bottle Emerges
She also remembered that there had been a second bottle from the class project, which someone found a few years previously, in the late 1990s. Burnett shared that the student who wrote the message in that bottle had also been contacted. And now Brian…
The fact that not one, but two of the bottles tossed into the river that day had been found years later was surprising. “Brian was a very promising young man,” Burnett said. “Even in the sixth grade, it was obvious. It is an amazing story of an outstanding young man.”
The Man Who Made It Possible
It warmed our hearts to know that Brian’s message had finally made its way back to his parents, who loved and missed their son so dearly. They had several people to thank for making the startling discovery - but one person in particular who it would have been impossible without…
The whole discovery started when Billy Mitchell’s sharp eye caught sight of the green bottle floating along the river a few days back. When he realized the family of the person who had written the letter had been found, he was eager to speak to them as well.
“Sent Chills… Down My Spine”
“Once he found the parents, Brad called me in tears, and I was in tears,” Mitchell said, recalling the moment his manager informed him of the good news. “When Brad told me he’d passed away, it sent chill bumps down my spine. It really did.” It indeed felt like a message from the beyond.
It suddenly occurred to him that, had the river decided to flow in a slightly different direction, he may have never found Brian’s message. His parents would never have known about the letter, and the bottle probably would have remained sealed for years...
The Dahls were forever grateful to Big River Shipbuilders for discovering their son's letter and for their efforts in trying to contact his family. Brian's death had left an enormous, dark cloud hanging over their family. His loss was almost too much to bear…
He had been their pride and joy, the most precious part of their lives. The family was overjoyed after learning about the discovery of the long-lost letter. But it wasn't just the Dahls who were touched by Brian's words from several years back. His story left a mark on several others as well.
The story went viral online, with several people sharing and relating to it, in some form or another. They sympathized with the Dahl family over the loss of their son and appreciated the young boy who had probably stood in front of the river years ago, picturing what it would be like for someone to find his letter.
It was interesting how a nearly illegible message from a deceased stranger could be appreciated by so many people on social media. After learning his story and hearing what the boy’s parents had to say, they connected to him in a way few people could ever understand.
An Instant Family
The Dahls immediately started to plan a visit to meet the kind and helpful employees at Big River Shipbuilders. They also wanted to thank them for their efforts in trying to identify the owner of the bottle, which they planned to take back home with them.
“We’re trying to plan a trip down to the shipbuilders and buy them a meal and hug their necks,” Eric Dahl said. The emotional father added, “Something profound has happened that brought us together, so we wanted to do it in person. They were like instant family.”
A Lasting Impact
Brian’s impact on his community, even long after he had left it, was remarkable. “To see something connect people instantly is a beautiful thing, it was typical of Brian to bring people together,” the boy’s father said. “It’s a testament to who he is and was.”
With the handwritten message now safe from water’s reach, it would continue to be a lasting reminder of the happy memories of Brian’s childhood. His parents would always remember him as a bright kid, with a good sense of humor - who was full of life.
Brian’s story is a bittersweet one - to truly understand it, it requires us to feel a whirlwind of emotions that every one of us knows all too well. Happiness and pain, hope and grief - is there a person on Earth that hasn’t experienced both love and loss?
But through the rollercoaster of life, through all its ups and downs, all we truly have left after everything we've encountered are the memories left behind. It really does feel, sometimes, that even after they are gone, the people we love never truly leave us...