Note: This article looking back on Tillie Tooter was originally published in 2015 after she died at age 98. Tooter would have been 100 in August 2017, 17 years after her crash that made news around the world.
Tillie Tooter went from anonymity to fame after surviving 78 hours in her car after plunging off an Interstate 595 ramp in August 2000.
Tooter died in 2015.
On Aug. 12, 2000, Tooter failed to pick up her granddaughter and her boyfriend from the airport. After waiting a few hours, Tooter’s granddaughter, Lori Simms, called the police to report her missing.
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En route to the airport, Tooter’s car was hit from behind. The impact sent her and the car over the guardrail and into a thicket of mangroves. Here, Tooter spent three days, surviving on rainwater that she caught with a steering wheel cover and sucking a button to keep her mouth moist.
Three days later while picking up litter with his father, 15-year-old Justin Vannelli looked down off eastbound I-595 and spotted Tooter’s car stuck in the trees below. It took more than 25 rescuers over an hour to rescue Tooter.
Tooter went on to live 15 years after her near-death experience.
Tooter’s funeral will be private, and her family is not speaking publicly yet about her life and death.
Her grandson, Eric Simms, posted this message on Facebook over the weekend:
“After a spectacular 98 year run I am saddened to say that grandma Tillie has finally gone down for the count.
I am just happy that I made it to see her this morning and told her I love her and thanked her for being a great grandparent.”
Two articles below published in the Miami Herald chronicle the drama, the rescue and the aftermath.
THE RESCUE: Grandma's survival in car defies all odds; 83-year-old found three days after plunge from road
Published August 6, 2000
By David Green and Griff Witte
As she lay in her mangled car, far beneath the freeway where she had plunged over the guardrail early Saturday morning, Tillie Tooter screamed for help. For the next three days, the 83-year-old retiree struggled to survive as the temperatures soared to above 90 degrees. She sipped feebly at rainwater caught in a steering-wheel cover while ants and mosquitoes stung her.
Tooter's ordeal ended Tuesday morning when a passerby on the highway spotted her car half-buried in the foliage below. Alive but weak, she was rushed to Broward General Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale, where she was upgraded from critical to serious condition late Tuesday.
Doctors say her outlook is good.
"She didn't think she was ever going to see us again," said a relieved Lori Simms, Tooter's granddaughter. "She just wanted hugs and kisses - and water."
The elderly woman suffered cuts, scrapes and bruises in the crash, but no broken bones, doctors said. She was covered with blisters and insect bites.
Authorities suspect a heavy vehicle - possibly a truck or tractor-trailer - slammed into the back of Tooter's Toyota Tercel while driving east on Interstate 595 about a mile east of U.S. 441. The impact caused Tooter's car to slide along the concrete barrier wall for roughly 35 feet before catapulting over into the mangrove swamp below, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.
The second driver apparently never stopped.
Discovery of the missing Pembroke Pines grandmother brought joy to her family and friends after several days filled with anxiety.
Tooter had pulled out of her Century Village retirement community just before 3 a.m. Saturday. She was on her way to pick up her visiting granddaughter and her granddaughter's boyfriend at Fort Lauderdale International Airport after their flight from New Jersey arrived several hours late.
"We called her and told her we'd take a cab," Simms said. "But she said, 'Don't be silly, you know I'm up. I'll come and get you.' That's the kind of person she is."
Tooter never arrived. After waiting and pacing, Simms and her boyfriend eventually called police and reported Tooter missing.
Over the weekend, sheriff's divers searched area canals and waterways. Helicopters hunted by air.
Troopers combed portions of fence line along what they figured was her route to the airport on Interstate 75, according to Pembroke Pines Police. A detective even drove to Vero Beach to check out a reported sighting of Tooter.
They never found her.
Then, shortly after 9 a.m. on Tuesday, 15-year-old Justin Vannelli was picking up litter with his father, whose company has the county's highway cleanup contract.
As he walked along the outside edge of eastbound I-595, he happened to glance down into the trees below.
"I saw all those trees pushed over," Vannelli, of Delray Beach, recalled. "And then I saw the car. I was looking at it for a while, and I saw her feet. She was dangling her feet to get my attention."
Vannelli shouted to his father, who called 911. Minutes later, rescue workers arrived. They rappelled roughly 50 feet down into the muck.
As they approached the car, they heard Tooter call in a feeble voice, "Can you guys get me out of here?"
"We're gonna try," Fort Lauderdale Fire-Rescue Lt. Michael Hicks called back. "That's what we're here for."
A team of more than 25 rescue workers sawed down surrounding trees. They chopped off the car's roof.
They then carefully extracted Tooter - who lay with her feet under the dashboard and her upper body in the back seat - from the mangled wreckage, loaded her into a basket and hauled her up onto the freeway by crane.
Her survival defied the odds - and the increasingly grim expectations of those following her disappearance.
"It's absolutely amazing," Division Chief Stephen McInerny said. "This is probably the most difficult rescue we've had to do as a department."
The thick canopy of willow and other trees that almost hid Tooter's car, cushioned it when it hit bottom, McInerny said. That, and the fact that she was wearing her seat belt, helped her avoid more serious injuries.
Tooter told her granddaughter the car flipped three times after it went over the bridge. After coming to rest, the woman said she was hanging from her seat belt, which she then unfastened. She said she was reaching for her phone when she was hit. When the car landed, she said the phone was lost, Simms said.
The swampy muck is swarming with bugs, snakes and alligators, fire officials said. It's muggy and airless, they said, and heats to over 100 degrees under the noon sun.
Tooter feared she wouldn't make it, relatives said. When her screams went unheard in the rush of traffic passing she scrawled a note to her family.
She didn't want her granddaughter to feel guilty, relatives said.
After Tooter was rescued, those same relatives gushed with relief. They laughed about Tooter's final words to paramedics as they prepared to lift her from her car.
"Can you bring my pocketbook?" she requested in a weak voice.
Shortly after noon, as Tooter was transferred to the intensive care unit, a trooper granted her wish: He arrived at the hospital carrying her stained white purse.
AFTER THE RESCUE: Tillie Tooter is still plucky at 93
Published October 8, 2006
By Jennifer Mooney Piedra
Six years after a hit-and-run left her trapped in her car for three days, Tillie Tooter celebrated her 90th birthday Saturday. Most of her days are booked solid: poker games with friends, trips to the penny arcade and Publix, dinner out with the ladies.
Tillie Tooter, the Century Village resident who survived three days in her sweltering Toyota after it was struck and the impact sent it plunging off Interstate 595 into a tree atop a mangrove swamp, says she feels like a kid - even if she is 90.
Tooter celebrated the milestone birthday Saturday with family and friends at the Hillcrest Golf & Country Club in Hollywood.
"I don't think I'm an old lady," said Tooter, sharply dressed in a sparkly white blouse and black pants. "I think young. I act young."
Tooter's friends, who live near her at Century Village in Pembroke Pines, vouch for her youthful behavior.
"She's like a 21-year-old," said Shirley Cheresnick, 79. "She's always on the go."
Tooter often drives herself - yes, she still drives - to her daughter's Boynton Beach home. She also does her own grocery shopping and cooking.
And she loves hanging out with her girlfriends.
Ten women from Century Village play cards together, go out to eat at the "best restaurants" and gossip.
Tooter is the oldest member of the group.
"We all want to be like her when we're her age," said 72-year-old Loretta Sheinberg. "She's independent, has a sense of humor and can say dirty words like the rest of us."
Linda Simms, 63, Tooter's only child, planned the party to honor her "hero."
"She's my best friend," Simms said. "She's a super-cool mom. She always has been."
Simms and her two children said they feel blessed that Tooter is alive and healthy, after the early morning hit-and-run accident that left her bruised and bitten by mosquitoes.
For three days in August of 2000, police searched for Tooter, who survived on rainwater caught in a steering-wheel cover, a cough drop and a piece of chewing gum.
She was rescued after a teenage boy spotted her car half-buried in the foliage.
"It's amazing that she survived," said her granddaughter, Lori Poulos, 34. "That was the best day ever."