Tampa, FL -- A Tampa woman is recovering after a dramatic rescue earlier this week, thanks to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.
“We appreciate what they were doing,” said Benny Cortez, who couldn't be more grateful.
On Tuesday, July 11th, Cortez’s wife, 71-year-old Lillian Morales, who suffers from dementia, wandered away from their home in Tampa.
Five hours, and two heavy rain storms later, the Hillsborough County sheriff’s office aviation unit took to the air to help with the search for Morales, using the helicopter's forward-looking infrared radar, or FLIR.
“If it wasn't for that tool, they wouldn't find her,” said Cortez.
At first, the pilot spotted the heat-image of what he thought might be a calf in the canal, but hopped on the radio, barking directions to deputies on the ground.
Incredibly, in the darkness, they were able to find Morales.
“10-4, she’s alert. She’s verbal. She might be a little cold, but she’s okay,” deputies confirmed on the radio.
Morales was finally spotted next to a creek bed with heavy brush, leaves, and grass.
The area was close to a mile from her home.
By the time she was found, it had gotten dark. We're not for the FLIR system, Deputies say it might've taken a lot longer to find her. And things might've gone a lot worse.
“She was on all fours trying to crawl out, and every time she would get to a certain point she would lose her balance and fall back,” said Stuart O’Shannon, who leads the HCSO Aviation Unit.
Morales's neighbor, Sandra Buie says she and her children occasionally find Morales wandering their neighborhood and bring her home.
“My kids were worried. They love her to death,” said Buie, “Who knows what could've happened? We're just happy that they were able to find her.”
Cortez says his wife suffered a mild heart attack somewhere along the way, but she's recovering at a local hospital and might be able to come home in the next couple of days.
They’re thankful - for the deputies and the technology that probably saved her life.
“I'm grateful, me and my kids,” said Cortez. “From the bottom my heart, like I said, I thank you.”
The FLIR system that was used to find Morales is actually from the 1980's. The Sheriff's Office does have a more modern version as well and hopes to obtain a state-of-the-art model soon. Each unit costs about 360-thousand dollars.
The deputies flying Tuesday volunteered to fly as soon as heavy storms started moving out of the area, determined to find Morales before it was too late.
“They were so elated,” said Deputy O’Shannon. “It was probably one of the more gratifying calls they had flown.”