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6th graders canoeing on the Hillsborough River find Tampa hiker missing for two days

THONOTOSASSA

Francis Netto set out Wednesday with books, snacks and a cell phone and walked into Wilderness Park for the 15-mile hike he makes several times a month.

Along the way, he greeted a group of kids on a field trip, and they had a chat about fishing before parting ways.

"Bye!" they told him.

Neither the hiker nor the kids could have predicted the circumstances under which they'd meet again.

Netto kept walking. By official account, he stopped to eat, opened a book and took his sinus medicine.

Then, he did something a hiker should never do when he has only a snack and a book and antihistamine:

Amid 16,000 acres of cypress swamp, hardwood floodplain forest and pine flatwoods — amid the alligators and the mosquitoes and the snakes — Netto fell asleep.

When he awoke, the sun was gone. It was dark, and his phone was dead.

Thursday morning, he tried to walk to his car, but wound up deeper in the woods, sheriff's deputies said. He'd been lost before, but never like this. He'd always managed to find his way back.

He heard helicopters as he walked but couldn't see them. Deputies were searching, with choppers, dogs and ATVs. News cameras were shooting the scene. His 24-year-old son, Jesse, was telling reporters his mind was racing with worst-case scenarios.

The kids were there, too, for the second of a three-day nature adventure. They weren't involved in the search that day. But they got to pet a snake.

Thunderstorms descended, and Netto stopped to build a shelter out of vegetation. It got dark again, and deputies called off the search for the night.

Friday morning, Netto continued walking, trying to follow the sounds of propellers. He found the Hillsborough River and thought he could float downstream to a bridge or overpass. At one point, he saw an alligator, and had to get out.

But he was chest-deep when those schoolkids saw him again.

The Webb Middle School sixth-graders in an English language learner program had just begun a canoe trip, listening to a guide point out trees and explain the eating habits of turtles, when they saw him. "The first thing he did," said 12-year-old Maykro Perez, "was smile."

The man was so weak, he could barely get in the boat, Maykro said. A kid scooted over to give Netto a seat. He had bug bites and scratches and his skin was pruned. Kadisha Avillah, 12, thought he looked thinner than he did Wednesday. He was thirsty. Someone gave him a full bottle, and he drank.

The kids said they tried not to make a big deal about the man on the boat, so he wouldn't feel bad. The group took him to Nature's Classroom, and emergency responders took over.

Netto, 56, reunited with his son, thanked deputies and went home to Temple Terrace. His son told reporters his father was resting and would be for the rest of the day.

The kids returned to school and spoke to reporters with excitement. "We're ready for Hollywood," said 12-year-old Juan Camilo Perdomo.

They said the events of the day had left a lasting impression, and that they hoped the man from the park had a good recovery.

And Kadisha had some advice for Netto:

"Next time he goes hiking," she said, "he shouldn't go alone."

Quotes in this story were translated from Spanish. Times researcher John Martin and reporters Jessica Vander Velde and Tia Mitchell contributed to this report. Reach Alexandra Zayas at (813) 226-3354.

Wilderness survival

Seasoned outdoor enthusiasts will tell you that when venturing into the wilderness, you should prepare for the worst and hope for the best. Even on a day hike, bring along some safety gear just in case your adventure turns into an overnight stay.

Before you head out, tell a friend or relative where you are going and when you plan to be back. Bring a cell phone on local trips where reception is not an issue. If you are out of range, invest in some type of emergency satellite signaling device.

Learn how to use a compass and read a topographical map. Buy yourself a hand-held GPS. Study your route and stop in at the ranger's office before you hit the trail and inquire about local conditions, such as flooded areas or wildfires.

Pack waterproof matches, insect repellent, a flashlight and spare batteries, some type of signaling device (whistle and mirror), as well as rain gear and spare food and water. Put together a "survival kit" with the previously mentioned essentials so you are ready when adventure calls.

Terry Tomalin, outdoors editor

6th graders canoeing on the Hillsborough River find Tampa hiker missing for two days 09/23/11 [Last modified: Saturday, September 24, 2011 12:30am]

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