Here I am! I stand at the door and knock.
If anyone hears my voice and opens the door,
I will come in and eat with that person,
and they with me.
The Book of Revelation 3:20
He is standing by the headstone when he first hears the strange sound. At first he thinks it might be the birds in the trees nearby, but it sounds more like muffled cries. Or perhaps some sort of whimper …?
Tor Schou Nilsen (58) is tending to his in-laws’ grave in Vestre Aker churchyard in Oslo. It’s half past eleven in the morning of 8 October 1991. The weather would become milder over the course of the day, but at that moment in time, a layer of hoar frost covers the grass in the graveyard.
Schou Nilsen removes the withered summer flowers by the headstone, replacing them with evergreens: silver fir, bell heather, common Scots heather that blooms even in the depths of winter, pink and purple, colours that endure even after the onset of the frost and snow that would soon cover Oslo. Heather was a popular choice of foliage in the graveyard during the autumn season; it was steadfast and durable, even after other plants admitted defeat.
But it is the sound that Tor Schou Nilsen is unable to banish from his thoughts. He hears it yet again. It’s coming from somewhere behind him. He turns around, and something compels him to follow it. It is only at this point that he catches sight of a small bundle, just five metres ahead of him in the churchyard. It’s a carrier bag he can see, half-concealed by a peony bush at the edge of the footpath leading towards Blindernveien. The whimpers must be coming from inside the bag. It must be a litter of kittens. Someone must have left them here in the graveyard to die. How can someone do such a thing to animals, he wonders to himself. Or could it be an injured cat, perhaps?
Tor Schou Nilsen inches closer. The plastic bag is stained with blood. He leans down, grasps one of the handles and realises that there is yet another carrier bag inside the first, its handles knotted together. As he works to untie the knot, muffled whimpers can be heard from within.
The knot gives way and the plastic handles slide apart. As Tor glances inside the bag, he beholds what lies within.
It’s a human being.
A living newborn baby, blue with cold.
“Am I seeing things?” Tor Schou Nilsen thinks to himself.
“Am I losing my mind?”
He glances all around him. The graveyard is deserted. Silent. The only sounds to slice through the air are the baby’s stifled whimpers.
“I can’t revive a dying newborn baby,” he thinks to himself. “I can’t do this on my own.”
Entirely at a loss, Tor stands there, motionless. He hasn’t the nerve to reach out to the baby; he fears that his touch alone might prove too much for it to cope with.
Isn’t there anybody else here who can help?
Tor runs as best as he can, back up the hill and straight for the church.
Crisp autumn leaves cover the graveyard. Those that haven’t yet released their grasp still cling to the branches or flutter in the breeze. Thousands of leaves are scattered across the ground surrounding the church, red, yellow, orange, brown, purple, as if autumn is in the process of concealing something that once was.
Most of the grass in the graveyard has been transformed into a rustling carpet of autumn leaves that crunches beneath Tor Schou Nilsen’s feet as he hurries on his way.
Arne Larsen, an employee of West Parkettsliperi, a floor refinishing company, is in the middle of sanding the floor in one of the church halls. Moments after sitting down to take a break, he sees a man running in his direction, waving his arms. All of a sudden the man starts shouting something, breathless, agitated:
“I need help! There’s a plastic bag down there by one of the headstones, and it sounds like there might be a kitten inside it. Or a dog. But it might be a…”
Larsen looks at him. He suspects the man might be slightly deranged.
“What are you saying?”
“There’s something there, inside the bag, crying! It’s making a noise!”
Schou Nilsen absorbs things for a few moments, suddenly uncertain about what he has seen. Could it really have been a baby? He wasn’t prepared for this. None of it made any sense. His misgivings cause him to hesitate. But… it was a baby! My God, it must have been a baby.
He runs a few metres onwards, in through the doors of the office located at the rear of the church. There are people inside! Thank goodness.
“I’ve just found a newborn baby in a plastic bag! It’s been hidden in a bush down in the churchyard! Someone needs to call for the police and an ambulance!” he stutters.
It is the parish clerk, Berit Pihl Johansen, who finds herself at the receiving end of Tor’s cries for help. She thinks he must be confused; it all sounds so implausible.
“Listen! We need to get back down there, right away!” Schou Nilsen cries, gasping for air.
Since 1855, mourners dressed in black have assembled here in the churchyard to weep for lives lost. Many thousands of departed souls lie at rest in the earth: well-known painters, cabinet ministers, pianists, football players.
But for the most part, those at rest here were entirely ordinary, valiant individuals who happened to pass away. A brother, a daughter, a father, a newborn infant.
But it is not the dead who merit attention at this moment in time, but a living baby lying in a plastic bag on the grass, a life that has barely yet begun.
Pihl Johansen hurries down into the churchyard with Tor, joined by Larsen. Schou Nilsen points at the spot where he found the bundle, just by the edge of the pathway. He is completely exhausted.
They peer inside the plastic bag.
Arne Larsen first catches sight of the blood, then the naked, newborn baby. Unwashed.
It isn’t crying. It isn’t making a single sound.
But wait, there it is; a tiny twitch.
“There’s life in it yet! It’s alive!” Berit cries.
“Open the bag! Give it some air!” Arne Larsen shouts.
They fear that the baby won’t be able to breathe, that it might be suffocated by the plastic that surrounds it. They pull at the handles, opening the bag.
The baby begins to squeal.
Arne Larsen is outraged. How on earth could someone abandon a baby in such a way?
That’s when the thought strikes him.
“There might well be a lost soul wandering around here, someone who gave birth right here in the churchyard. Should we try to seal off the area?”
But there’s no time. Berit carefully picks the child up from the ground, still wrapped in the plastic bags. She holds the baby close to her.
“It needs help straightaway, this is a matter of life and death!” she cries. She recalls her GP, whose surgery is only a few minutes’ drive away in Ullevål Hageby. That must be where the nearest help is to be found, surely?
It’s not far from here, just a few hundred metres up the road. She could run there with the baby in her arms. But by then it might just be too late.
“We need a car! Quickly!” she cries.
She cradles the baby close to her, still inside the bag, crossing the churchyard and making her way up the hill, hurrying in the direction of the church office. She holds the infant tight, supporting its neck and head with one hand, just as she once held her own children.
Larsen glances at his van. There’s too much lacquer and dangerous clutter for a baby in there, he thinks to himself.
At that moment, a car appears around the corner. Larsen recognises the driver. It’s someone from work.
He steps out into the road, waving his arms and bringing the car to a halt. Erland Døviken (65) has popped by to see how his colleagues are getting on, something he was in the habit of doing since his retirement. Today he’s also due to deliver some lacquer to the cleaners in Larsen’s company.
“I need you to drive us to a doctor, right this minute!” Berit instructs him.
The others help her as she climbs into the car with the child in her arms.
“Drive, drive!” she cries. “To Ullevål Hageby Health Centre!”
Døviken is aware that something serious is afoot. He curses briefly when he realises what’s inside the bundle that the woman is holding. He drives at full speed as Berit Pihl Johansen directs him along the road that runs through the churchyard.
“Up there!” Berit Pihl Johansen cries.
Døviken swings out onto Sognsveien. Up towards John Colletts plass. On towards the tram circuit at Ullevål.
Berit sits in the passenger seat holding the baby, still in its blood-smeared plastic bag. She can feel its head and upper body resting against her forearm.
“Don’t let it suffocate in that plastic! Do not let it suffocate,” she repeats to herself inwardly. She opens the bag a little more.
“Is it still breathing?!” Berit wonders. The baby is barely making a sound now. The tiny human is powerless to save itself. But there. They hear another whimper.
She catches a glimpse: a boy. His head is glistening, his face wrinkled, his eyes closed.
Berit packs her coat tightly around the bags surrounding the baby. She’s terrified, yet feels calm. Babies shouldn’t be inside plastic bags! All the same, a moment later she thinks:
“This ice-cold baby is better off in its plastic bag – I’ve nothing better to offer it at this moment in time.”
For now, saving the life of the baby in her arms is all that matters. She feels the weight of the infant; his arms and feet emerge from the plastic material of the bag.
Erland Døviken steps on the accelerator, driving the car up Sognsveien and the final few metres to the health centre.
“Keep going! We’re almost there,” Berit instructs him.
Erland glances quickly to his right. He can’t see the baby. He can only hear the muffled sounds coming from inside the bag.
He’s a grandfather himself, with six grandchildren of his own. He loves children.
“This is just too awful. What could bring someone to do such a thing to a baby?” he cries.
It takes them no more than five minutes to reach their destination: Nils Henrik Abels vei 2. Døviken brakes in front of the entrance to the health centre. Berit Pihl Johansen runs up the steps to the first floor with the baby in her arms.
Bioengineer Unni Anker-Nilssen is sitting in reception.
“Come here, Unni! Come! Help me!”
Unni doesn’t understand, not at first; Berit, a long-standing patient at the health centre, appears to be cradling her arm inside a plastic bag, and Unni is sure that she must have broken it.
As Unni stands up, she catches sight of it; its head, its hair, its face, a newborn baby wrapped inside the plastic bag.
Without warning, she finds herself gazing into the eyes of a seemingly full-term, blood-smeared baby.
Berit passes her the bag.
“In here!” Unni cries.
She rushes through the corridor with the newborn infant in her arms, past the laboratory and into the office of her husband, the doctor. Berit follows her. Unni places the bag holding the baby on the examination table.
Dr Jan Anker-Nilssen leaps up in fright before gently, hurriedly removing the baby from the bag. It can’t have been born very long ago at all, he thinks to himself.
“A man found it in the bag by the church,” Berit attempts to explain.
The doctor has welcomed many children into the world, including his own son. Even so, this situation is something else entirely.
“Is it alive? Is it breathing?” he wonders.
The infant’s breathing is shallow, and each breath seems laboured. But Dr Jan Anker-Nilssen can also feel just how low the baby’s temperature is; he is freezing cold.
Time is of the essence; a newborn infant cannot survive long after having been left naked in a plastic bag in the cold autumn air, he knows that.
A baby cannot tolerate losing much of its body heat at all before the situation becomes critical.
“We need to act quickly!” Jan Anker-Nilssen declares.
The doctor hurriedly washes his hands, then massages the tiny, slippery body, rubbing the baby’s skin as vigorously as possible and warming it with his hands to increase blood flow.
Jan Anker-Nilssen listens to the baby with his stethoscope before wrapping him in a blanket.
The baby cries softly before falling silent.
“We need to get him to Ullevål Hospital right away!” the doctor says.
“Call 113!” he demands.
The doctor is convinced that this is the only viable course of action.
Unni rings the emergency number. She requests an ambulance and the police.
113 receive the message about the baby at 11:47. The police duty officer is contacted just two minutes later. They can barely believe the report that comes in.
The baby’s umbilical cord has not yet been cut and he is still attached to the placenta, which is also there inside the bag, full of the life and blood of the woman who brought him into the world just a few hours earlier.
Unni passes the doctor two sterile sets of forceps and a pair of scissors. There ought to be a father here to do this, Unni thinks, as she watches the doctor pinch the cord between the forceps before cutting the section in between them.
The ambulance takes seven minutes to arrive. One of the paramedics takes the baby, wrapped in a blanket. Another, the ambulance driver, takes the plastic bag with the placenta and the remainder of the cord inside it.
They hurry through the waiting room, where the terror-stricken patients witness the drama that unfolds before them.
On board the ambulance, the baby lies in the arms of a man from the Norwegian health service. The driver makes his way through the city at high speed: 500 metres back down Sognsveien, left onto Kirkeveien, onto Thulstrupsgate and towards Ullevål Hospital. There are several signs that the baby is having trouble breathing.
Is this where things end? Won’t he make it? But what about everything yet to come? Meeting someone who loves him? Someone he can love in return. Won’t he get the chance to experience these things?
The list of everything he ought to do, everything that remains incomplete; it is long, an endlessly wonderful, endlessly poignant list, if one dwells upon it.
A happy mother and father would have wept together. They would have called family and taken proud photographs of their little miracle. The mother’s friends would have come to marvel at the baby, and then mother and father and infant would have stepped out of the hospital, started the car, driven home, and embarked on their lives together.
In a just world, it wouldn’t be long before the little boy would be clutching a table leg, slowly rising upwards, standing, and then – eyes wide, filled with pride – taking his first steps across the room of an Oslo apartment. He’d learn to call for his mother. She’d hold him close and then, embraced by her warmth, she’d stroke his back until he drifted off to sleep.
His mother might have read him a fairy-tale, and they’d have gone for walks together down Hegdehaugsveien. His father would have watched him frolic and play, never tiring of the sight, infinitely charmed by his little boy.
From time to time things would prove challenging, of course, life would also inflict pain upon him. On one of those days, somebody might even break his heart, shattering it into tiny pieces. His mother and father would love him then, too.
But here and now, in an ambulance making its way to a hospital in Oslo, all of this seems so far away. The baby rests his head in the only safe place available to him, against the body of the ambulance worker in whose arms he’s cradled.
Down in the churchyard, Tor Schou Nilsen is still trembling with shock. But he feels a certain sense of relief, too. Relief at having managed to fetch help. He doesn’t know what he might have done if he hadn’t found the others. Now he can only hope that the child will make it.
Not far from him in the churchyard, Arne Larsen and two others agree to take a look around. They have the time for it now, though Larsen suspects that he might still be in shock, aware of the way his body is shaking.
“There could be a troubled woman somewhere around here, an unstable mother,” he says.
They take a walk, peering in bushes and around trees in the churchyard, but ultimately finding nothing.
Before long, police have surrounded the area. Crime scene investigators and sniffer dogs explore every inch of the churchyard. They examine the contents of rubbish bins, where withered bouquets can so often be found, whilst police Alsatians sniff their way around the area, seeking out any trace of a mother. Two uniformed officers stand guard at the cemetery gate. They block the entrance to the churchyard with a police car. In between the headstones and the crosses, the investigators are hard at work, deep in concentration as they bring in cases filled with forensic equipment and undertake thorough investigations around the sight of the discovery. One shines a torch into a hedge, and the sound of walkie-talkies crackles across the churchyard.
Even the investigators at the police station mobilise. What exactly has happened here? Are they looking at a case of attempted murder? Who is the baby? Where did he come from? Where is the mother? And what about the father?
Three quarters of an hour ago, the crying baby had been lying in a bag here in the graveyard, born only very recently. What might have happened if he hadn’t managed to fill his tiny lungs with the air needed to cry, to make his instinctive call for help? Were these primal screams, emerging from somewhere deep within? From a sense of having been abandoned? What might have happened if he hadn’t managed to cry out like he did?
It’s not impossible to imagine that the plastic bag might have been tossed into an enormous waste bin up by the church. The waste disposal lorry would have reversed into the churchyard, come to a halt and emptied the larger bin with the bag inside it, along with a heap of plastic packaging and rubbish – withered summer blooms, clumps of earth, abandoned decorations, angel figurines and a heart with the words “Thinking Of You” printed on it. The final effects of the churchyard; the items that people throw away because they don’t want them, or simply have no use for them anymore.
The bag would most likely have been transferred to a waste disposal plant somewhere in Oslo, then destroyed or incinerated at a landfill site.
The ambulance arrives at Ullevål Hospital at 12:01. Asbjørn Langslet (51), paediatrician and professor, admits the child to the neonatal intensive care unit. He carries the baby wrapped in a wool blanket in his arms. Other than the blanket, the baby is naked, still unwashed since his birth.
Two neonatal nurses join him. They quickly lay the baby down, placing him on a blanket. They do all they can to free up his airways.
The baby is still alive. He is a normal size, fully-developed. The doctors make their initial assessments. They take his body temperature. The display on the thermometer reads 29°C.
The baby is having difficulty breathing.
Complications of this kind are anticipated among newborns who suffer extreme hypothermia, when the infant’s awareness and ability to breathe is reduced. The blood vessels in the lungs become constricted, as they once were when the baby was in the womb and the placenta was responsible for the exchange of gases in the blood. Too little blood will reach the baby’s lungs in such a case, preventing the infant from getting enough oxygen, as well as from ridding the body of carbon dioxide.
The baby is immediately placed in an incubator with a heat supply. The nurses adjust the temperature, increasing this by two degrees above than the standard setting. He also requires support with his breathing. They increase the oxygen levels inside the incubator, fed in through a plastic tube that extends from an outlet in the wall. It’s hoped that this might help to lessen the load as far as the baby’s breathing is concerned.
Long-term exposure to the cold is all the more precarious for newborns, who lack the ability to regulate their body temperatures. Newborn babies have very little hypodermic fat, and they are quick to lose warmth through their thin skin.
A nurse pricks the baby’s finger with a needle, taking a few drops of blood. The test shows an elevated CRP, which measures infection levels in the body. The tiny newborn boy is already displaying symptoms of having contracted an infection, but the doctors can’t be certain; white blood cell levels in newborn babies are often high, and colder temperatures can elevate CRP, making the body more vulnerable to infection.
Nevertheless, considering the baby’s condition upon arrival, the medical team decide to administer antibiotics without delay.
Inside the incubator, a narrow box with transparent walls, the baby lies naked, wearing nothing but a tiny nappy that makes him easier to observe.
They put a hat on his head and cover him with a small blanket.
There is a great deal of fuss in the intensive care unit. Two doctors and two specialist care nurses huddle around the tiny body.
The infant inside the box has already experienced two stages of hypothermia: mild hypothermia, from 35°C to 32°C, and moderate, from 32°C to 30°C.
Moderate hypothermia is sufficiently dangerous in itself: when body temperatures drop to 30°C, breathing is shallow, the pulse is hard to find, and the heart’s ability to contract deteriorates. The skin is ice-cold. But this is not where the issues end. Hypothermia also affects the supply of oxygen to the brain. The infant is moving ever closer to the point of entering a coma.
In theory, the baby will fall unconscious and become motionless at temperatures between 28°C and 30°C. Cardiac arrest can occur when the chambers of the heart go into spasm or stop functioning entirely. A temperature lower than 28°C can cause significant harm to the internal organs, as well as severe circulatory failures.
The baby is dangerously close to this stage.
His temperature is just 29°C.
The scene depicting the discovery of the baby and the subsequent action in the churchyard is based on the following research:
Five interviews with Tor Schou Nilsen, three interviews with Berit Pihl Johansen, two interviews with Arne Larsen, five interviews with Lennart Kyrdalen of Oslo Police District and one interview with Ellen Døviken (all conducted between February 2014 and September 2016). News articles in Dagbladet, VG, Aftenposten and NTB from 9 to 21 October 1991. Reports on NRK Dagsrevyen TV news and Dagsnytt radio news, October 1991. Police interviews with Tor Schou Nilsen and written reports from police officers on scene in October 1991. Lokalhistoriewiki.no and Oslo municipality (concerning Vestre Aker Churchyard). NTB Tema (concerning planting in graveyards).
The scene based in the doctor’s office and on board the ambulance is based on:
Two interviews with doctor Jan Anker-Nilssen, three interviews with Berit Pihl Johansen and one interview with Unni Wedahl Anker-Nilssen. Articles from Dagbladet, VG and Aftenposten on 9 and 10 October 1991.
The scene depicting the police work in the churchyard is based on:
Five interviews with Lennart Kyrdalen of Oslo Police District and two interviews with crime scene investigator Knut Rykhus. Studies of 94 photographs taken as part of the police investigation in the churchyard. Articles in Dagbladet, VG and Aftenposten on 9 and 10 October 1991, and reports on NRK Dagsrevyen TV news and Dagsnytt radio news.
The scenes in Ullevål Hospital are based on:
Two police interviews with senior consultant Asbjørn Langslet in Ullevål Hospital, dated 9 and 16 October 1991 respectively. Four interviews with professor Drude Merete Fugelseth, two interviews with Ingrid Helen Ravn, one interview with Tove Eikrem and one interview with Hilde Follestad, all current or previous employees of the neonatal intensive care unit of Ullevål Hospital. Reports from doctors’ journals and logs from Ullevål Hospital. Interviews with Lennart Kyrdalen of Oslo Police District and crime scene investigator Knut Rykhus. Further background: Two articles on hypothermia and the treatment of serious hypothermia on Norsk Helseinformatikk (nhi.no) and Den Norske Legeforening’s tidsskriftet.no, one article on ‘Young Children, Babies and the Cold’ available at nhi.no.
The sentences “it wouldn’t be long before the little boy would be clutching a table leg, slowly rising upwards, standing, and then – eyes wide, filled with pride – taking his first steps across the room”, “life would also inflict pain upon him” and “The baby rests his head in the only safe place available to him” are inspired by paragraphs in Karl Ove Knausgård’s Om høsten [On Autumn] (2015), the chapter entitled ‘Spedbarn’ [‘Baby’] (pp. 135-137, Forlaget Oktober, 2011). The sentence, “On one of those days, somebody might even break his heart, shattering it into tiny pieces. His mother and father would love him then, too”, is inspired by Oscar Danielsson’s song ‘Besvärjelse’ [‘Incantation’] (Promising Records, 2011). The sentence “His head is glistening, his face wrinkled and his eyes closed”, is inspired by a paragraph in Nakker [Necks], by Karl Ove Knausgård and Thomas Wågstrøm (Pelikanen, 2014).
N.B! Dagbladet acknowledges the fact that specific aspects of this case can be difficult for those involved to recall in precise detail after 25 years. As such, we have made every effort to speak with as many individuals as possible and to gather information from official sources (police interviews, medical journals, etc) and newspaper articles, in order that the various chains of events depicted are as authentic and accurate as possible.