Rescued Woman: I Prayed, I Screamed

Friday, August 18th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — An 83-year-old woman rescued from her wrecked car after three days in a snake-infested swamp said Friday she did everything possible to attract attention and raged with despair when it seemed no one would find her.

``It was quite maddening,'' Tillie Tooter said on NBC's ``Today'' show. ``It was painful. I was bitten all over my body.''

Her car plunged 40 feet off a bridge and into the swamp early Saturday as she drove to the airport. At least two passing motorists called authorities to report what they had seen.

Firefighters came and peered over the Interstate 595 bridge for 15 minutes, using spotlights and flashlights to illuminate the darkness. But they saw nothing, so Tooter remained trapped in her car until a passer-by found her Tuesday.

``I screamed and I blew my horn and I did everything that I possibly could to attract attention,'' she told NBC. ``And then the horn died — the battery went dead. I prayed, I screamed, I raged, I cursed, waiting to get a little help, hoping somebody would hear me screaming.''

She spoke from her hospital bed, a large bruise on the side of her face. She also was treated for dehydration and insect bites but said she didn't encounter any snakes.

``At the time that the young man that discovered me stuck his head over the ramp, I at that point I was really dying. I was very weak,'' she said. ``I was shaking all over and I had given up hope.''

``I made my peace with God. I wrote a little note to my granddaughter,'' she added in an interview with CBS' ``The Early Show''

She said she had a cough drop, a peppermint and one slice of gum that she tore into slices to ration ``and when I ran out of the few things that I had, I sucked on a button to produce saliva in my mouth. I had heard that many years ago.'' Using steering wheel covers, she captured rainwater and sopped it up with golf socks and then sucked on the socks to get the water.

``I am a survivor,'' she said. ``I have been fighting for 83 years. I come from Brooklyn, New York, and if you don't learn to survive there, you are not going to make it at any place.''

The Fort Lauderdale Fire-Rescue Department, praised as heroes Tuesday for pulling Tooter from the swamp, and the Florida Highway Patrol spent Thursday trying to explain how they failed to locate her initially even though one call to 911 stated a car had gone off the bridge.

They also had to explain why they didn't take another look after relatives reported that Tooter was missing.

Part of the problem apparently was that another car was damaged in an accident about the same time about half a mile from the bridge. That car sustained front-end damage — Tooter's car was rear-ended.

Two men in their mid-20s, whose names were not released, told troopers their car had hit the concrete wall, but they did not mention any other vehicle being involved, said Stephen McInerny, the fire-rescue department's division chief.

It was not immediately determined whether that car caused Tooter's accident, officials said.

Fire department and highway patrol officials on Thursday blamed their inability to find Tooter the first time on the darkness, the thick trees and the fact that the witnesses who called 911 had not stopped at the scene so they could point out the exact spot where her car fell.

``The vehicle had been swallowed up by the trees and the brush and the muddy swamp floor,'' McInerny said.

Even in daylight, he said, her car was impossible to see unless a person stood directly above it and looked straight down off the bridge. If one of the witnesses had stayed, maybe they could have pinpointed the point where the car fell, he said.

Highway Patrol Lt. John Bagnardi said troopers were not sent to the bridge early Saturday morning after dispatchers received a motorist's call, but he could not explain why.

Witness Lidia Pena said Thursday she made it clear to a highway patrol dispatcher that she saw a car go off the bridge.

Pena did not see the collision, but saw brake lights, followed by a car climbing the retaining wall and somersaulting over. A second car then struck the wall, its hood popped up and it continued on the shoulder, she said.

Pena, 21, did not stop, but used her cell phone to call 911 and was transferred to a highway patrol dispatcher. The dispatcher never asked for her name or phone number, she said.

On her return home, Pena said she saw a trooper and fire-rescue personnel gathered near the car she saw strike the wall. She said she also saw an ambulance leaving the scene.

``I assumed everything was taken care of,'' Pena said.