PEMBROKE PINES (CBS4) — One of South Florida’s most famous survivors is speaking out just days after her 97th birthday and recalling her ordeal while trapped in a car for 80 hours in a snake and bug-infested mangrove swamp beneath I-595.
Tillie Tooter says in an exclusive interview with CBS4’s Peter D’Oench that her drive to survive kept her alive and has made her stronger than ever.READ MORE: Man Accused Of Pointing Gun At South Miami Winn Dixie Worker, Stealing Steaks, Arrested
“What’s the good of living if you’re not going to enjoy life and take what you can out of,” Tooter told D’Oench at her condominium at Century Village in Pembroke Pines. “You have to drag every bit of joy out of life in order to survive. Every morning I wake up and every night I go to sleep, I say thank you. This is no bull. This is the truth. I wake up and say please God another day.”
It was the night of August 12th of 2000 when Tooter was driving her Toyota Tercel to the Fort Lauderdale airport when her car was knocked through a guardrail and off the highway and down into the swamp nearly 40 feet below I-595 just west of Fort Lauderdale.
“That accident was a terrible, terrible thing. The more than three days I spent there felt like a lifetime. I rehashed every day of my life and that’s what kept me alive,” said Tooter. “I had just learned that I was diabetic. And I had no pills with me, nothing. I went through the car and I found a cough drop, a stick of gum. And I tore a button from my blouse for moisture, I sucked on a button. I had seen a John Wayne movie and that’s what he had done.”
“I used a wheel cover to collect some rain so I could drink,” said Tooter, who also said she sucked on Altoids. “On the third day there was a storm and I needed that rain.
She was also disoriented—half the time in darkness.
“I made up my mind that if I lived through, I would try to help people who were negative to be positive,” said Tooter.
Tooter still drives a Toyota Corolla that Southeast Toyota Distributors gave her after the accident. She said the car has 56,000 miles on it. She took D’Oench for a spin around Century Village in her car. Her eyesight is good and said, “I need glasses for reading.”
As she parked her car, she got out and said to D’Oench, “Well do you think I can still do it?”
Tooter, who turned 97 on October 3rd, said she stays busy and that keeps her “young at heart.”
“I’m doing things all the time,” she said. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t have something to do. I play cards every day at century Village. I play poker and pan and I play canasta and pea knuckle when I can. I have children and grandchildren and great grandchildren. I love to see them. It’s a wonderful thing. I read a great deal. My mind is working all the time. I’m doing very well. I have a lot to be thankful for.”
“I know I am here if I say it myself to be an inspiration to other people,” she said. “I feel I was brought here to live, to make the most of other people’s lives as well.”READ MORE: Hot & Steamy Afternoon, Little Chance For Rain
It’s not been easy.
“I’ve had many, many operations. Everything but cancer,” she said. “And I managed to overcome all of these things. Sometimes I can’t help but tell you that I pat myself on the back being able to make people respond to me.”
Tooter said she still goes to casinos and from time to time, she gives inspirational speeches at other condominiums and assisted living facilities. “That has slowed down a bit,” she said. “But I have been up and down the east coast to do this.”
“It feels good to make people try to realize they should live their life to the fullest,” said Tooter.
D’Oench, who has interviewed Tooter for the past 13 years, also received a surprise after saying to Tooter “Happy Birthday Tillie.”
“Thank you Peter very much,” she said. “You know you’ve been an inspiration to me too. I call it an inspiration through all the years from all the visits you have made.”
D’Oench recalled seeing Tooter at Broward General Medical Center, just days after she was rescued and when her news conference was carried live by CNN. Her face was battered and bruised and she was covered in bug bites.
“I was bitten from my head to my toes,” said Tooter. “It took weeks and weeks to get the poison out of my system with medication.”
She will never forget the moment her car was spotted.
Justin Vanelli was doing some work on I-595 when he looked down and saw her car in the mangrove swamp below. He and his work crew alerted 911 and Fort Lauderdale Firefighter-Paramedics rushed to the scene. “He was my savior,” Tooter said.
Scott Campbell of Hollywood was later arrested, after bumping Tooter’s car and leaving the scene of the accident.
Campbell agreed to five-years-probation, an apology to Tooter and payment of whatever medical bills that Tooter’s insurance did not cover. At the time, Tooter said she forgave him. But three years later, Campbell was arrested for driving under the influence—a violation of his probation—and was sent to jail for three years.
“My glass is half full, not half empty,” Tooter told D’Oench on the tenth anniversary of the accident. “You know what I mean. This is the way I look at all things. It’s a wonderful life. Whatever you can draw and take from life, do it. You are not here that long. Age is only a number to me. I don’t dwell on that. And I don’t dwell on the bad. I dwell on the good.”MORE NEWS: First Suspected Case Of Monkeypox In Broward, Warning Signs To Look For
“I want people to be happy,” she said at the time. “I want to be happy. “And I wish people would look around and smell the roses. I am so grateful for the time I have had. I savor every single moment. Who knows how long it will last. I have had a very good life.”