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In Pics: US mother traces son’s final journey after study trip to Uttarakhand led to death

Five years after American student Thomas Plotkin fell off a hiking trail near Munsiyari, his mother Elizabeth Brenner is following the 1669 kms trail down the Ganges where his remains may have drifted to.

india Updated: Jul 10, 2017 12:56 IST
Associated Press
Associated Press
Associated Press, New Delhi
thomas plotkin,elizabeth brenner,munsiyari
Elizabeth Brenner, has been following the last footsteps of her son Thomas Plotkin in India. Thomas died during a study abroad trip to the mountains of India more than five-years-ago. His body was never found. Brenner spent two months tracing the 1,670 kilometre path along the Ganges River as she believes this is the path taken by her son’s remains.(Rishabh R. Jain / AP)

When Elizabeth Brenner’s 20-year-old son Thomas died while hiking during a study-abroad trip in India, she began searching for other cases and found only partial data and anecdotal records.

“Nobody was keeping track of this at all,” she said.

Brenner’s son, Thomas Plotkin, was one of the millions of American students who have studied abroad in the last decade — part of a growing global youth travel industry estimated to be worth $183 billion a year.

A view of Munsiyari, a small town in the mountainous state of Uttarakhand, India. In 2011, Minnesota resident, Thomas Plotkin, was on a hiking study abroad trip close to this town, when he fell off a hiking trail, never to be seen again. More than five years later, his mother Elizabeth Brenner, travelled through the town and hiked to the spot where he fell. ( Rishabh R. Jain / AP )

The number of American students studying abroad has doubled in the last decade. But while US colleges and universities must report deaths on their campuses, they are not required to disclose most student deaths that occur abroad and the US Department of Education keeps no such statistics.

Elizabeth Brenner (L), and her family go through an emotional moment at a cafe in Munsiyari, Uttarakhand. They were finalizing the path they would take to hike to the spot where her son, Thomas Plotkin had a fatal fall in 2011. Under their hands is a local map that details the Milam Glacier Trail, the same trail that Plotkin was hiking on. ( Rishabh R. Jain / AP )

A group called the Forum on Education Abroad pulled together information for 2014 from two insurance companies that together cover half of the US study-abroad market. The group used the partial data to conclude in a 2016 report that students are less likely to die overseas than on a US campus.

Elizabeth Brenner (R), gazes skywards during her meeting with locals in Lilam village in the mountainous state of Uttarakhand in north India. She is on a journey through India tracing the last footsteps of her son and talking to locals who were involved in the rescue efforts more than five-years-ago. ( Rishabh R. Jain / AP )

Brenner and other parents slammed the report, saying the findings are misleading and give parents the idea that programs are safer than they may actually be.

Elizabeth Brenner (3rd R), and her family sit at the spot on the Milam Glacier Trail where Brenner's son, Thomas Plotkin, slipped and fell more than 300 feet down a steep gorge and into the raging Goriganga river in 2011. ( Rishabh R. Jain / AP )

The forum is now planning to release a new report later this year with information for 2010-15, but it will still cover only half of the market. The forum’s head, Brian Whalen, said they tried to get the exact number of student deaths overseas from the US State Department, but were told it wasn’t available.

“Knowing which areas are hotspots for violent crime is important information for kids and parents to know when they’re making decisions on where they’ll study abroad,” said Rep. Sean Maloney, a Democrat from New York who introduced the Ravi Thackurdeen Safe Study Abroad Act in Congress in 2014 and plans to reintroduce it in September.

A bell with the name ‘Thomas’ inscribed on it was hung by Elizabeth Brenner on the Milam Glacier Trail in Uttarakhand, India. A similar bell hung by his classmates in 2011 had washed away by the seasons, so Plotkin's mother Brenner replaced it with this one. ( Rishabh R. Jain / AP )

The lure of studying abroad is strong, and universities are offering more programs than ever.

“It contributes to personal growth through greater independence, deeper self-knowledge and greater tolerance for ambiguity,” said Brad Farnsworth, vice president of the American Council on Education.

But many American universities and colleges are unable to finance or manage such programs, and instead refer students to independent, third-party operators.

A view from a balcony at the India headquarters of Wyoming-based National Outdoor Leadership School in Ranikhet, Uttarakhand. In 2011, Minnesota resident, Thomas Plotkin, was enrolled in the Semester in India program through the school when he fell off a hiking trail, never to be seen again. According to his mother, Plotkin loved this view and spent a lot of time gazing out from this balcony. ( Rishabh R. Jain / AP )

When Plotkin died on his 2011 trip to the Indian Himalayas, the University of Iowa, where he had been enrolled, cut ties with the organization that ran the course, the National Outdoor Leadership School.

Elizabeth Brenner (L), dressed in green, sits on a crowded steamer boat along with her partner Barry Knight near Gangasagar, West Bengal. Brenner spent two months tracing the 1669 kilometers path along the Ganges River to where it empties into the Bay of Bengal as she believes this is the path taken by her son's remains. ( Rishabh R. Jain / AP )

Earlier this year, Plotkin’s mother spent two months on a “pilgrimage” tracing a winding 1,670 kilometre (1,037 mile) trail along the Goriganga and Ganges rivers to where the water empties into the Bay of Bengal.

A local woman helps Elizabeth Brenner (L), take a dip in the waters of Gangasagar in West Bengal, India. She believes that part of her son's remains flowed across India through the Ganges river into the Bay of Bengal. ( Rishabh R. Jain / AP )

Brenner believes this is the path her 20-year-old son’s body travelled after he fell from a mountain trail and disappeared into the water, never to be seen again.

“I still feel a tremendous amount of grief,” said Brenner, from Minnetonka, Minnesota. “I’ll have to figure out how to carry that for the rest of my life.”

First Published: Jul 10, 2017 10:20 IST