HOLIDAY — The place where Kathleen Shino was found Tuesday afternoon, up to her neck in a swamp, ants crawling on her face, legs trapped in mud and branches, definitely for several hours, possibly several days, is a place no one needs to go.
The lake is east of U.S. 19 and south of Flora Avenue, behind a fireworks tent and a shopping plaza that is abandoned, save for a strip club and a Christian fellowship center. Most of the buildings are post-apocalyptic-looking shells — empty doorways, no windows, thick vines reclaiming concrete, broken beer bottles on broken asphalt. Sounds are muted back here, the void between walls and swamp.
There is nothing enticing about the swamp or the prickly thicket encircling it. Alligators live in this water.
It is unknown how or why Shino, a 62-year-old retiree with diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and no history of dementia, ended up here. It is unknown exactly when she left her home on Brightwell Drive, which is about 800 steps from where she ended up, which is a lot for Shino, who walks only to the end of her street and back on her best days dealing with her illness.
Her family last spoke with her Friday, couldn't reach her Saturday and checked on her Sunday, to find her missing. She left behind the crutches she uses on bad days. She left behind her car and her wallet and her phone. She left a half-finished pillowcase of fire trucks for her grandson on her sewing machine.
"She was just gone," said Bobby Fusco, 43, her son-in-law. He, his wife and their two children came from Apopka north of Orlando on Sunday as soon as they heard Shino was missing. They handed out fliers. The Pasco County Sheriff's Office searched for Shino, issued an alert and called homes in the area to tell people to be on the lookout for her. Shino is a strong but quiet divorcee whose family never had any qualms about her living alone.
Sunday turned to Monday.
Monday to Tuesday.
Then, about 4 p.m. Tuesday, a few blocks away on Koala Drive, a mother and daughter heard something as they worked in their backyard garden, which faces the swamp. At first, Alexandra Echazabal, 30, and her mother, Alexia Cuartas, 61, thought it was an animal or a vagrant. It sounded like moaning. Then they saw the water rippling near the thicket.
It was faint and weak.
"What's wrong?" Echazabal asked. She could not see a person.
"I'm stuck in the water," the voice replied.
The women called the Sheriff's Office.
Cuartas had heard about the missing woman and asked:
"Are you Kathleen Shino?"
"Yes," Shino responded.
"Hang on," Echazabal shouted. "Help is on the way."
Shino didn't speak again.
Minutes later, Pasco Deputy Keith Krapfl was the first on the scene. He was training a deputy who stepped out into the swampy brush with him. It was so thick they had to crawl. Krapfl felt like he was in a jungle. They heard moaning, but it didn't sound human. They were rolling up on whatever it was blindly, not able to see far in front of their faces. Krapfl, 40, thought he and his trainee were about to interrupt an alligator feasting on an animal that was still alive and crying out in pain.
Then he saw a head.
"That was the last thing I was expecting," Krapfl said, "to see a human face coming out of the water."
The water was about waist-deep, but Shino had sunk diagonally into the muck, with only her head above the surface. She was facing land, as though she stepped out in the swamp, changed her mind, swiveled and was trapped.
Her hair was wet.
She looked at Krapfl.
She stopped moaning. Her eyes rolled back into her head.
Krapfl threw his gun belt to the trainee and jumped in.
"Hold on," he told her, keeping her face above water. It seemed as though Shino let go as soon as she knew help was there. She had nothing left. She could have been there for up to four days in sweltering, 90-plus-degree weather.
"She's very fortunate that someone heard her," said Jane Norman, a nutritionist and diabetes educator at the University of South Florida's Diabetes Center. "She was, I would suspect, significantly dehydrated by the time they found her."
Stuck in the muck and without clean drinking water, Shino could have suffered muscle cramping, heart palpitations, dizziness. Her eyes would stop producing tears. She could stop sweating, which can cause body systems to fail, Norman said.
"Stay with me," Krapfl said, patting Shino's face. He tried to lift her out of the swamp, but his feet soon became stuck in the mud and underwater branches.
Paramedics had to use a chain saw to cut through the brush to reach Shino. Krapfl said the scratches on her body were blue. Emergency crews also had to help him out of the swamp.
As of Wednesday evening, Shino was still hospitalized but improving, said Bobby Fusco, her son-in-law. The doctors believe Shino's confusion might have been caused by her diabetes. Rising or plummeting blood sugar levels could lead to delirium.
"They got to her in the nick of time," Fusco said. Shino was brought to the hospital dehydrated and in shock, her body wrinkled from the water.
He said she has not spoken of what happened and her family has not asked, though she keeps saying how thankful she is to have been found.
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy and reporter Jamie Klein contributed to this report. Erin Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6229.