IF LOVE COULD RESCUE Shane Montgomery, he'd have been home by dinner on Thanksgiving.

The search party of relatives and friends who walked the Manayunk Canal and the streets of Roxborough that day would have found him - maybe at a friend's house, after a night of Thanksgiving Eve fun at Kildare's Pub.

They'd have reamed him out for giving them a fright, brought him home, shared turkey at his grandma's house on Rector Street and bumped chests when the Eagles destroyed the Cowboys that day.

If community support could rescue Shane, he'd have walked through the door the day after Thanksgiving, when 200 volunteers joined Shane's family in the search. Or on Saturday, when that number ballooned to 400.

He would have said "Hey, Pappy" to his dad, Kevin. He would have tugged the toes of his sleeping mom, Karen, and said "I'm home," like he always did before heading to bed after a night out.

"He'd be here," says his aunt, Marianne Wittman. "If love and support could bring him home, he'd be here."

Instead, more than two weeks after Shane, 21, disappeared from that Main Street bar, the days without him have grown longer, colder and harder. Last week, the biting winds, bleak snow and gray Schuylkill blew a fresh wave of despair over his family. Shane was wearing a thin shirt and hoodie the night he vanished. What protection was that against weather so cruel?

Shane's big extended family has known tragedy. A cousin died at 16 of cancer. A niece perished in a car wreck at 23. Those losses were searing. But Shane's disappearance has taken the family's suffering to a place they could never have imagined.

The limbo is excruciating. And yet, each day that he remains missing is a day when he might be found alive, no matter how unrealistic that may seem. Surveillance video from a Main Street salon shows Shane walking toward the Schuylkill the night he vanished. So far, no video shows him returning. But that doesn't mean he never did, says Inspector James Kelley, commanding officer of the Northwest Police Division.

If Shane is not found, "this will remain an open case and we will follow up on it," says Kelley. "We are not ready to give up on it."

The diligence of law enforcement has heartened the family.

"They are not Philly's finest; they are the nation's finest," says Kevin Verbrugghe, Shane's godfather. He was brought to tears when he saw the police, marine, K-9 and aviation units swarming with federal agents on Main Street when Shane vanished.

"Even strangers are searching for my godson," he says. "In this day and age when there is so much evil in the world, I have seen so much good come out of something so bad. The love has been overwhelming."

Says Wittman, "It's the only thing that gets us out of bed every morning."

Such support is crucial in missing-person cases, says Todd Matthews, spokesman for the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. Overseen by the U.S. Department of Justice, it's a centralized repository and resource center for missing persons and unidentified decedent records.

The families of the missing are often isolated from others who've suffered tragedy, Matthews says.

"Humans are prepared to face death," he says. "When a loved one dies, others know what you're going through. But we are not prepared to face the mystery of a disappearance. When a person remains missing, life goes on for the rest of the world. But for the family, life just stops."

Matthews' agency maintains a national database of 40,000 unidentified bodies; and there remain 80,000 Americans reported missing over the years whose absence has not been resolved.

"I call it a 'silent massacre,' " he says. "If we lost 120,000 people in a tornado, everyone would understand what everyone else was suffering. But these numbers are spread out over space and time. It isolates families. But if they can stay surrounded by people who've walked with them through their darkest hours, it can help."

Or so he thinks. Matthews knows, when he is telling a family to stay strong for their missing loved one, that he has no idea what he's talking about.

"I don't know how they put one foot in front of the other," he says. "I tell them to stay positive and that they will survive. But if I were in their position I don't know how I would go on."

How does the Montgomery family go on, not knowing what happened to Shane?

How do they let go of the rail-thin young man who could eat like a horse, whose wiry red curls defied the goops and gels he tried to tame it with? Who loved music and jokes and his job at Pierogi Kitchen, his life at West Chester University, his big family and gang of friends?

"He's not perfect," says Wittman, brokenhearted. "No one is. But he's ours. We have to bring him home. We just have to."

Phone: 215-854-2217

On Twitter: @RonniePhilly

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