TAMPA — The sun was just starting to set when the three canoeists called for help on a dying cell phone.
Roberto Romero, 36, Mike Silhol, 22, and Andrew Sadberry, 16, had been out on the Hillsborough River since about 1 p.m. Monday. But now it was getting dark, and they realized they were in trouble — they were about to be stuck in an alligator-and-snake infested swamp, at night, with virtually no supplies.
They had paddled several miles downstream from their launch site at Hillsborough River State Park and were now lost on a wild swath of the river known as Seventeen Runs. The trio was adrift in the swamp, dodging low-hanging branches and fallen logs and trying unsuccessfully to navigate the numerous waterways created by the constantly fluctuating levels of the river.
Their canoe ran aground, one of the men told a 911 dispatcher, and they began to wander the 50-square-mile swamp on foot.
Around 8 p.m., Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office Aviation and Marine Units launched a search for the group, which lasted through the night. Two deputies in a canoe — guided by searchers overhead in a helicopter — yelled back and forth with the men in the dark wilderness for 10 hours before they finally found the group shortly before 7 a.m. Tuesday.
“As soon as they saw us, they started running in our direction,” said David Reigner, one of the deputies in the canoe. “They were really relieved they were finally getting out of the woods.”
Reigner and his partner, deputy Michael Wright, gave the men some water and determined that none of the men were in need of medical attention. The deputies towed their canoe back to the men and led the group to shore at John B. Sargeant, Sr. Memorial Park off U.S. 301 and Stacey Road.
The men needed some food, water and sleep, but they weren't hurt, deputies said.
“All we could say was 'thank you' because we heard them the whole night trying to call out to us,” Sadberry told News Channel 8.
People familiar with Seventeen Runs, which stretches more than five miles from Dead River Park down river to Sargeant Park, call it practically unnavigable. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection classifies Seventeen Runs as an expert-level stretch of the Hillsborough River paddling trail. It's extremely difficult to paddle through, even for experienced canoeists.
The state warns that paddlers should expect to have to wade in dark water at least four feet deep to navigate their canoes around the trees. Officials also say they should bring enough food, water and supplies in case they are on the river past nightfall.
“It's definitely tricky,” said Phil Compton, a board member for Friends of the Hillsborough River. “You have to be paying very close attention.”
He has paddled through Seventeen Runs, and said the trail usually is marked by white slash marks on the trees along the river, Compton said. But at this time of year, after so much rain, those markers would be even more difficult than usual to see.
“They're not the first people to get lost in there,” he said.
Deputies make several rescues every summer in the Seventeen Runs area, Wright said. And this group of men probably had little experience with canoeing.
They didn't have GPS or flares, which public safety officials say are near-necessities if a canoeist is attempting to go through the swamp. Their canoe flipped twice, and they lost all of their provisions and one of their cell phones, which was deputies' main way of tracking them in the dark.
The men also left their canoe to wade through waist-deep water inhabited by alligators and water moccasins, Wright said. They likely thought they could make it on foot to a nearby road.
Rescuers found the trio's abandoned canoe at about 1 p.m. If the men had stayed with the canoe, they would have been out of the swamp about 6 hours sooner, deputies said.
The tree canopy made it difficult for deputies in the helicopter to locate the men and the rescuers in the water, even with the help of spotlights and night-vision goggles, said pilot Stuart O'Shannon.
“It was a daunting task, to say the least,” he said.
Officials recommend that anyone out on the river during the rainy season take the proper safety precautions and always pack the right supplies and equipment.
“If you're going to go out in an area like that, plan for the worst and hope for the best,” Reigner said.