Deep in the brush, they found Ellen Quinlan: dehydrated, disoriented and vulnerable to the elements, including alligators.
The two-day search, which began when the 27-year-old South Tampa woman's car was found abandoned on a Punta Gorda road, ended Sunday as well as it could have.
Back in Tampa on Monday, her fellow parishioners at Christ the King Catholic Church gave thanks.
The Rev. David Toups told about 50 parishioners that when he scheduled the prayer session over the weekend, he did not know how the story would end.
"We are so glad Ellen is alive," he said.
Quinlan's abandoned car was found Friday night on Shell Creek Court, off U.S. 17 near Punta Gorda. The window was rolled down, and a purse sat on the front seat.
Witness said they had seen a disoriented woman walking barefoot around the Lazy Lagoon Mobile Home Park.
Her parents, Anne and Gerard Quinlan of Tampa, were by her side at Charlotte Regional Medical Center, where paramedics took her. She was in good condition, authorities said.
Quinlan hadn't taken necessary medication for a week, deputies said.
They are not releasing any more medical information, and her family has declined to comment.
The Charlotte County Sheriff's Office on Monday released more details about the search.
It was dark outside Sunday night when authorities realized they may have finally found Quinlan after a massive search.
Thermal imaging on a Charlotte County Sheriff's Office helicopter showed a person standing by a tree, deep in the brush, about a mile south of Quinlan's abandoned car.
Over their radios, the helicopter crew guided deputies on the ground to the "hot spot." Their exchange reveals the discovery:
"We got her. She's standing here. She is alive," a man says.
Seconds later, he adds: "She is responsive. She's standing up. I don't know how we are going to get her out of here because we had to crawl in here."
A woman replies: "10-4. Suggest some options. I will get you what you need."
The man: "Um, a machete."
The woman: "10-4. I can get one of those."
Deputies got a machete and used it to work their way toward Quinlan.
Without the thermal imaging equipment, finding Quinlan would have been much more difficult, deputies say.
The brush was so dense, "even a rabbit has a hard time getting through," Col. David Bonsall said Monday.
Before her disappearance, Quinlan had been at her parents' Tampa home Thursday night. She left her cell phone there.
She is a graduate of Tampa Preparatory School and Washington and Lee University. She was one of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla's 2004 debutantes, and in 2008, she was in the running for the title of 95th queen of Gasparilla. Her father has a law firm on Henderson Boulevard in Tampa.
Toups, the priest at her family's church, said the Quinlans were longtime parishioners. He talked to Anne Quinlan by telephone. She had "tears of joy that they'd found Ellen alive," he said.
When word went out over the weekend about Quinlan's disappearance, parishioners began praying.
"I just wanted to show my support," said church member Darlene Hammer, who attended Monday's prayer service.
Hammer didn't know details about what had happened. "They found her, and that's the main thing," she said. "You don't ever know. What if it was one of your own kids?"
Jodie Tillman can be reached at email@example.com or (813)226-3374.