— After four endless days and nights submerged up to her neck in a dense thicket of mud, branches and insects in a Florida swamp, Kathleen Shino had one thought running through her mind.
“That nobody was going to find me; that that was going to be it,’’ Shino told TODAY’s Lester Holt Monday. “There were times that I [thought], ‘Maybe I’m already dead, and I don’t know it yet.’ ’’
When the ordeal finally ended with the exhausted body of the 62-year-old grandmother being pulled from the thicket after rescuers had to chain-saw the vines and branches, she even was able to find some humor in the situation.
“The one thing I did think of every once in a while to give myself a little bit of a laugh sometimes during the day is that people pay a lot of money to go sit in mud spas,’’ she told NBC News. “Then I’m thinking, ‘They’re wasting their money. It’s not what it’s cracked up to be.’ ’’
‘I didn’t know where I was’
On Friday, June 17, Shino, a mother of four and grandmother of eight, left her home in Holiday, Fla., around 9 p.m. to take a stroll. For unclear medical reasons — Shino suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes, but has no history of dementia — she blacked out and soon became submerged in a dense mangrove area only 800 steps from her home.
Ants began to crawl over her face, fish nipped at her body, and shadowy figures lurked in the water. “I knew I was in water,’’ she said. “I didn’t know exactly where I was.’’
After she survived more than 90 hours in sweltering temperatures with no water or food, Shino’s faint plea for help was heard by a pair of neighbors on Monday afternoon. Alexandra Echazabal, 30, and her mother, Alexia Cuartas, were tending their garden in the backyard a few blocks from where Shino was trapped. At first the two thought the moaning might be an animal, before the faint voice stated that she was stuck in the water.
Shino’s children had called neighbors to inform them of their search for her, and Cuartas soon asked if the voice coming from the swamp was Shino’s. By that time Cuartas had called the police, fearing what might be lurking in the water. “I know for a fact there is an alligator there,’’ Cuartas said in her call to 911.
Pasco County Deputy Keith Krapfl was the first responder to find Shino, whose face was the only thing that could be seen above the water. Paramedics needed chain saws to cut away all of the branches and roots to finally extricate Shino after her harrowing ordeal. The muck and branches were so dense that the emergency crew also had to help Krapfl out of the swamp after he helped rescue Shino.
‘She wouldn’t have made it through the night’
Mercifully, Shino did not hear about the alligator that lived in the swamp until several days after leaving the hospital. At first, Krapfl told local reporters that he had feared he would find an alligator feasting on an animal or person rather than what he stumbled upon.
“When you see a human face in the water coming out, it kind of blows your mind,’’ Krapfl told NBC News. “She wouldn’t have made it through the night, I don’t think.’’
Despite struggling to stay awake nearly all night during her four-day ordeal, Shino had enough energy to mark the passage of time. She could reach two nearby branches, and would put a leaf on one every morning to mark a new morning, and stick a leaf on the other one to mark another night.
“In case I forgot, I would know how long I was there,’’ she told Holt.
Her daughter, Kristi Fusco, had filed a missing person’s report on Sunday after being unable to reach Shino on Saturday. A trip to Shino’s house had revealed her wallet, cell phone and car untouched. The crutches she used for her arthritis on bad days and a pillowcase she was sewing for her grandson lay untouched.
While her family frantically scoured the neighborhood and called neighbors in a search for Shino, detectives also were searching for her and calling her name, but she was too weak to respond. Meanwhile, the sun kept falling and rising.
“I never realized how long 24 hours really is,’’ Shino told NBC News.
The cause of her plight still remains unknown, and she had not even seen the site of her ordeal until watching the NBC News segment on it that aired before her in-studio appearance alongside her daughter.
“I’m getting stronger, and just trying to cope with everything and take it all in,’’ Shino said. “Some of it, I still try to not to think about now.’’
Doctors have speculated it could have been a wild change in her sugar levels because of her diabetes that may have caused an episode.
“I have some medical problems, and they’re just not sure if it was any of that or something that just happened,’’ Shino said.
Shino and her daughter also appeared on TODAY to promote Project Lifesaver, which helps provide rapid response to save lives and reduce potential for serious injury for adults and children who wander due to Alzheimer’s, autism, Down syndrome, dementia and other related cognitive conditions, according to its website. One of the products Project Lifesaver provides is a waterproof tracking bracelet with GPS for quick and easy location of anyone in trouble or missing.