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Police rescue pair of teens from swamp in St. Petersburg

Aaron Smith and Norman Oropeza, both 18 and from St. Petersburg, emerge from the mangroves where they were lost while hiking Tuesday off Gandy Boulevard in St. Petersburg.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Aaron Smith and Norman Oropeza, both 18 and from St. Petersburg, emerge from the mangroves where they were lost while hiking Tuesday off Gandy Boulevard in St. Petersburg.

ST. PETERSBURG — The teens looked at a Google map and saw the waters of Tampa Bay.

From where they were, an apartment just off Gandy Boulevard, the bay didn't look too far way.

But several hours after setting off on an exploratory journey, Aaron Smith and Norman "John" Oropeza knew they were lost and stuck in the mangroves — perhaps one of the few places in St. Petersburg's urban landscape where one can actually get lost in the woods.

They called 911, setting off an odd rescue attempt by land, air and sea.

• • •

About two weeks ago, Smith bought a machete, St. Petersburg police said. He wanted to go exploring.

He and Oropeza, both 18, headed into the woods about 9 a.m. Tuesday, entering near a cul-de-sac tucked northeast of Gandy Boulevard and Fourth Street N. Smith lives in an apartment complex in that area.

About 1 p.m., police received a 911 call from Smith.

He said he and his friend were lost and could not find their way out of the swamp.

The teen told police that they were not injured but that their cell phone battery was nearly dead. They had a little food with them, but no water.

"They were trying to reach the bay," said Capt. Roger Young of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "They almost made it, then got lost."

Authorities launched a search with officers on foot, officers in boats and officers in planes and helicopters.

At one point, authorities blew an air horn, hoping the sound would help the teens make their way out. The teens told officers over the dimming cell phone that they could hear it. But they never emerged.

Then the cell phone died. Calls to the teens went unanswered.

Stormy weather moved in. Darkness was close.

• • •

How does anyone get lost in St. Petersburg, with its sprawling urban development?

Simple, say wildlife officials.

Though one of the teens had been hiking before, neither had experience with the Florida wilderness, said Young.

And even though the area the teens were in is just a few square miles in size, the terrain is rough. There are snakes and at high tide, the water can get chest-high.

"It's really tough to even walk back there," Young said.

In the early evening, a search plane finally spotted the young men.

"He could see them from the air, but literally you couldn't see them 20 feet in front of you unless you were right on top of them," Young said.

Authorities considered a helicopter rescue, but abandoned that idea. Lt. Jason Curtin and Officer William Widener of the wildlife commission headed to where the plane had spotted them just before 6:30 p.m.

After maybe an hour of searching, the officers found the teens.

"They were hollering, and we were hollering," Widener said.

The spot they were found — more than a mile from where they had started — was wet and filled with thick underbrush.

About 8:30 p.m., not long after the sun set, the young men emerged from the mangroves from the same spot they had gone in.

They had been stuck in the swampy woods for nearly 12 hours.

The teens made no comments to the media as they were led to a police cruiser. Police said they would interview the teens to learn more about what happened.

Other than a bee sting, they suffered no injuries.

Apartments where teens entered mangrove swamp


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Police rescue pair of teens from swamp in St. Petersburg 08/10/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 11, 2010 12:20pm]

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