Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Public safety

Rescued canoeists 'took a wrong turn' on Hillsborough River's 17 Runs

THONOTOSASSA — Amid the croaking of bullfrogs and whine of mosquitoes in the blackness of a Hillsborough County swamp, three men stood atop a floating log Monday night crying for help through a canopy of trees.

What was supposed to be a daytime canoe exploration of the upper Hillsborough River turned into a harrowing night in the wilderness for the trio. It ended early Tuesday when sheriff's deputies spotted them and guided them back to dry land.

"We took a wrong turn, simple as that," said Andrew Sadberry, 26, who had navigated swamps by canoe before, but never this one. "I never want to do that again."

Sadberry and his two friends, Robert Romero, 36, and Michael Silhol, 22, set out Monday afternoon from Hillsborough River State Park. It was the first day of a vacation for the three, who met at the Columbia in Ybor City, where they worked as waiters.

They intended to wend their way through the labyrinthine waterways in what is known as the 17 Runs, a remote section of more than a dozen inlets off the main river. Between them, they had two life jackets, one pair of shoes and a cellphone.

They moved past a sign warning that the water was for experienced paddlers only. Nearby, another declared, "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here."

Shortly before dusk, they were lost. The men kept paddling until they reached a dead end of an inlet. They climbed out and trudged through the swamp, headed toward the distant sound of traffic along U.S. 301.

"It's just like being lost in the woods; it's easy to become disoriented," sheriff's spokesman Larry McKinnon said. "You add darkness to that and it makes it even worse."

The trees were too thick, the night too dark. Fearing an alligator encounter, the trio assembled atop a 15-foot log.

From their dying cellphone, they called 911. A search was launched. Dispatchers told the men to continue calling 911 every 30 minutes. Using the phone's signal, deputies were able to target an approximate search area.

Through the branches and vines, the boats and canoes of searchers glided over the river waters. Overhead, the men heard a sheriff's helicopter.

A search team from the sheriff's marine unit found the canoe about 1 a.m. They could hear the men yelling for help and kept in contact with them, shouting back and forth until daybreak, when they could be spotted, Deputy Michael Wright said.

Just before sunrise, deputies guided the three from the log back to their canoe. With two deputies leading the way, they paddled for an hour to John B. Sargeant Park, where paramedics and TV news cameras awaited.

"I'm definitely not going to hit this river for a good long bit," Romero said as a blood pressure cuff squeezed his left arm.

With the helicopter in the air for about nine hours, the search amounted to about $10,000, sheriff's officials said — the anticipated cost of a lifesaving effort.

Afterward, the three gulped bottles of water and recounted the ordeal before paramedics declared they were okay. In the light of the morning sun, they stepped up the sandy parking lot and spoke of breakfast and sleep.

"I'm going to the beach next time," Sadberry said.

Times staff writer Keeley Sheehan contributed to this report.

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