The Doc Project

Why this Toronto firefighter may never know what happened on his puzzling journey across the U.S.

One year ago, Danny Filippidis disappeared during a ski trip in New York and resurfaced days later in California — with little to no memory of how he got there. According to medical experts and the reporter who interviewed him, Filippidis may never regain his memories to piece together exactly what happened.

Medical experts say a concussion or fugue state could explain Danny Filippidis’ days-long amnesia

Fire captain Constantinos (Danny) Filippidis poses for a portrait at the Toronto Professional Fire Fighters' Association in Toronto on Aug. 23, 2018. The Toronto fire captain who was found at a California airport 6 days after vanishing from a New York State ski slope likely sustained some sort of head trauma along his puzzling journey across the country, American authorities said. (Mark Blinch/The Canadian Press)

Originally published in February 2019.

Last winter, Constantinos (Danny) Filippidis went missing while on a skiing trip in Lake Placid, N.Y. Six days later, he reappeared — across the country, in Sacramento, Calif., with no memory of how he got there.

A year later, Filippidis is back at work as a captain with Toronto Fire Services. Doctors concluded he most likely suffered a head injury while on the slopes, but won't suffer any lasting physical damage.

Medical experts told The Doc Project, however, that the complex nature of brain injuries will make it very difficult to paint the full picture of what really happened.

Filippidis still has large gaps in his memory — memories that likely won't come back to him for years, if at all. 

"There will be answers that he will never uncover, and that can't be easy," said Canadian Press reporter Michelle McQuigge, who spoke with Filippidis in an exclusive interview last August.

The Canadian Press reporter Michelle McQuigge works at her office in Toronto. McQuigge was the only journalist granted access to Filippidis. (Jesse Johnston/The Canadian Press)

Bizarre from the beginning

When McQuigge was first assigned to cover the case, she told The Doc Project's Acey Rowe, few details were available.

"There hadn't been a sense of any sort of a major avalanche or anything like that, but it's a ski trip, so anything could have happened."

On Feb. 2, 2018, Filippidis briefly left his friends on the Whiteface Mountain ski resort to retrieve his cellphone from his car. No one saw him on the mountain again.

Filippidis believes he lost consciousness sometime shortly after splitting up with the others.

"I went down and the next thing I knew, I woke up cold, sore," Filippidis told McQuigge.

Filippidis was visiting Whiteface Mountain in Lake Placid, N.Y. with colleagues from Toronto Fire Services in February 2018. He disappeared when he left his group to retrieve his phone from his car. (The Associated Press)

His disappearance sparked a massive search.

He doesn't remember much about the next few days, but believes he flagged down a truck to get a ride off the mountain.

The next thing he remembered was the truck's driver telling him he was in Utah — more than 3,000 kilometres away from Whiteface Mountain.

Some time later, the driver left him in Sacramento — still clad in his ski gear — with no ID except a single credit card.

He eventually got a new phone, but it took about a day for him to remember his wife's number.

"I called, and someone else answered. It was one of the wives of one of my friends," he told McQuigge.

"She told me, 'You know, everybody is looking for you. We're all here in Lake Placid.' And I just remember the waves of emotion.

Once Filippidis returned home safe, questions and rampant speculation swirled around his cross-country journey. 

Filippidis found himself in Sacramanto, Calif., still wearing the same ski gear he had on nearly a week earlier at a ski resort in Lake Placid, N.Y. (New York State Police)

Filippidis and representatives from his firefighters' union in Toronto declined to comment on The Doc Project's story.

In his interview with McQuigge, he still had more questions than answers. 

"There is a lot that he's had to resign himself to the fact that he simply will not know," McQuigge said.

The supposed truck driver who transported him to Sacramento could hold the keys to the mystery, but authorities were unable to identify the driver.

Without that key witness, McQuigge said it will be very difficult to reassemble the full account of that really happened.

"It's still overwhelming and shocking to think that it happened," Filippidis said.

Head trauma or fugue state?

Dr. Charles Tator, a brain surgeon at Toronto Western Hospital's Canadian Concussion Centre, said Filippidis's story likely describes amnesia resulting from a concussion. But told The Doc Project he would have to speak to Filippidis directly to get a better sense of the incident.

The incident could be a combination of retrograde amnesia — loss of memory of events before a blow to the head — and anterograde amnesia, loss of memory of events after a blow to the head.

"It happens maybe in 10 per cent of cases of concussion that there is a period of amnesia," said Tator.

Dr. Charles Tator, a brain surgeon at Toronto Western Hospital's Canadian Concussion Centre, said Filippidis's story likely describes amnesia resulting from a concussion. (Veronica Simmonds/CBC)

He explained that amnesia frequently coincides with a loss of consciousness that comes after a severe blow to the head.

Loss of memory can last anywhere from a few seconds to 24 or 48 hours in length; he characterized Filippidis's days-long episode, however, as "unusual."

Filippidis told McQuigge that he couldn't remember the exact moment that his memory blanked out — which would, if the theory is accurate, mark the moment he suffered a head trauma.

Dr. Jennifer Ryan, a senior scientist at the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest in Toronto, said certain details of Filippidis's story suggest his amnesia may have been caused by something entirely different: a psychogenic or dissociative fugue state.

Dr. Jennifer Ryan, a senior scientist at the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest in Toronto, said Filippidis’s his amnesia may have been caused by a psychogenic or dissociative fugue state. (Veronica Simmonds/CBC)

A fugue could be triggered by a head injury, but it could also be sparked by a traumatic event or "emotional disturbance," she explained, essentially "short-circuiting" the subject's memory.

"There's nothing physically wrong in the brain, but for whatever reason the person has difficulty remembering who they are and where they are."

Cases of dissociative fugues often involve the subject travelling, which could partially explain Filippidis's expedition.

Ryan added that subjects typically don't remember the travelling itself; their memory frequently kicks in when they find themselves in a new, unfamiliar location.

'Islands of memory'

That may be one reason why Filippidis's first memory after leaving Lake Placid was learning he had reached Utah.

"That really rang a chord with me, because I've never really been out west in the U.S. before," he told McQuigge.

"I think it added to my confusion and feeling of not really knowing what was going on."

Tator said that it's not uncommon for people to have "islands of memory" remain after an amnesiac period. By the time Filippidis was approaching the West Coast, he speculated, his "full registration of memory" may have been slowly on the mend.

Concussion is turning out to be a much tougher nut to crack than we thought.- Dr. Charles Tator, brain surgeon

Many patients with longer-term amnesia never fully recover their lost memories, Tator said, but fragments might return as much as two to three years later.

While physicians once thought they could distinguish between severe and mild concussions, he said, pretty much every concussion-related incident he's studied is different from the next.

"We know that the usual mechanism of concussion is rotational acceleration, but that's just a fancy term for jiggle of the brain — and jiggle of the brain somehow alters the registration of memory. But from there on, we don't have a clue," he said.

"Concussion is turning out to be a much tougher nut to crack than we thought." 

Written by Jonathan Ore. Produced by Veronica Simmonds.