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Man uses Google Earth to find long-lost mother

Separated from his family at age 5, an Indian man uses the Web tool to track down the name of his village -- and ultimately reunite with his mother.

Google Earth helped Saroo Brierley find the village he left as a child, right down to the waterfall he used to play in as a child.
Screenshot by Steven Musil/CNET

Sometimes Google Earth can help you find your way home after decades of not knowing where home is.

That is what apparently happened for an Indian man who was separated from his family as a 5-year-old. Saroo Brierley tells BBC magazine that he was accompanying his older brother on a train trip in 1986 when he fell asleep and awoke 14 hours later in the notorious slum of Calcutta. Without his brother.

At first, he lived on the streets, joining legions of children begging for their livelihood. Brierley would eventually be taken in by an orphanage and adopted by a couple in Australia.

"I accepted that I was lost and that I could not find my way back home, so I thought it was great that I was going to Australia," he told the magazine.

But as he grew older, the desire to know where he came from also grew. With vivid memories of the town where he was born, but not its name, he started searching the Internet for clues. Brierley multiplied the 14 hours he knew he had been on the train by the average speed of trains in India to determine how far he traveled that night. He then drew a circle around Calcutta based on that radius and eventually determined that Khandwa was the town he was looking for.

"When I found it, I zoomed down and bang, it just came up," he said. "I navigated it all the way from the waterfall where I used to play."

He would eventually make his way to Khandwa and locate a familiar house. His family had moved but he remembered their names. With the help of passers-by, Brierley was taken to the house where is mother lived.

At first he did not recognize his mother, who was stunned into silence by his reappearance. She took him by the hand into her house.

"She had a bit of trouble grasping that her son, after 25 years, had just reappeared like a ghost."

His older brother was not as fortunate; his body was found on the railroad tracks a few months after Brierley disappeared.