Woman Found Alive in Car Wreck

Wednesday, August 16th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — For three days, 83-year-old Tillie Tooter kept it together.

First, a thicket of mangrove and willow trees cushioned her fall when her Toyota Tercel plummeted 40 feet off an Interstate 595 bridge Saturday.

The trees then kept her car suspended sideways, only inches above a snake- and alligator-infested swamp, saving Tooter from the reptiles and from possibly drowning.

Tooter unbuckled her seat belt and made herself as comfortable as possible. For sustenance, she stuck an aluminum steering wheel cover outside her broken windshield to collect rainwater in the 100 degree heat.

But by Tuesday morning, dehydrated and covered with insect bites, she began to lose hope, and wrote a farewell letter to her family.

That morning, Justin Vannelli, 15, who was collecting trash on the bridge, noticed some of the trees below were mangled. He looked down and saw Tooter's car.

Just over an hour later, Tooter was at Broward General Medical Center, where she was expected to recover. She was listed in serious condition late Tuesday.

``This 83-year-old lady had it all together,'' Fire-Rescue Division Chief Stephen McInerny said. ``That may have made a difference between surviving and dying.''

Lt. John Bagnardi, a Florida Highway Patrol spokesman, said investigators believe Tooter's car was struck from behind by a car or truck that didn't stop.

Tooter's ordeal began with a late airline flight.

At 2 a.m. Saturday morning, Tooter's granddaughter, Lori Simms, and Simms' boyfriend arrived at Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport, 3 1/2 hours late from Newark, N.J.

Simms called her grandmother to say they would rent a car or catch a cab and head to her Pembroke Pines condominium, about 10 miles away.

``She said 'Don't be silly. I'm awake. I'll come get you,''' Simms said.

Tooter never arrived.

Worried, Simms and her boyfriend rented a car and drove to her condo. Tooter wasn't there and they called police.

For three days, Pembroke Pines police officers, assisted by other law enforcement agencies, drove the highways to the airport and checked the nearby lakes and canals. They found nothing.

Tooter told her relatives that her thoughts weren't mostly about herself, but her family and how they were coping.

``She is a very strong woman,'' Simms said.