Too Tough to Die

updated 09/04/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/04/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

As they rappelled from Interstate 595 in Davie, Fla., to the mangrove swamp about 40 ft. below, the rescue workers had no idea what condition Tillie Tooter would be in. It had been three days since the 83-year-old grandmother's Toyota Tercel plunged off the highway early on the morning of Saturday, Aug. 12, and she had been trapped all that time without food or water. Then they heard her voice, an old-time Brooklyn rasp unchanged by 15 years of Florida retirement: "Can you guys get me out of here?"

Tillie Tooter was alive and kicking—and no one who knows her is surprised. "When people hear 83," says Lillian Goloshian, 77, one of Tooter's friends at Century Village retirement community in Pembroke Pines, Fla., 15 miles southwest of Fort Lauderdale, "they think nice, sweet, gentle old lady. Bull!"

It was Tooter's indefatigable nature that had her on the highway at 3 a.m. in the first place. Her granddaughter Lori Simms, 28, flying from Newark, N.J., with her boyfriend, was to arrive at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport at 11:08 p.m. on Friday. Delayed by bad weather, however, their Continental Airlines flight didn't get in until 2:33 a.m. Still, Tooter insisted on picking them up. "It's just as dark at 10 as it is at 3," she told Simms on the phone.

When Tooter didn't show up, Simms (whose mother, Linda, 57, is the thrice-married Tooter's only child) began to call police and emergency rooms. In fact, two motorists had reported seeing Tooter's car, rear-ended by a driver who left the scene, plunging over the side of the dimly lit highway at 3:15 a.m. "The 911 callers gave the right location," says Fort Lauderdale Fire-Rescue Department Division Chief Stephen Mclnerny, "but nobody stayed there to mark it." The canopy of trees that cushioned Tooter's landing made her car, which had landed on the driver's side, invisible to searchers. In pain from spinal-disc problems and arthritis, Tooter was trapped. The mosquitoes and red ants were starting to bite.

"I screamed, ranted, raged, swore," says Tooter. "I cursed and I pleaded, and I begged for somebody—for God, for my mother, for somebody—to get me out of there." Tooter, 5'2" and 160 lbs., used her quilted steering-wheel cover to collect rainwater and sucked moisture from the socks she stretched over the gear-shift handle to keep it cool. "The socks tasted absolutely disgusting," she told Simms, a third-grade teacher. Tooter also rationed her food supply—a cough drop, a peppermint, a stick of chewing gum. And she wrote a last message to Simms on a supermarket receipt. "She was letting me know," says Simms, "that it wasn't my fault."

At 8:44 a.m. on Aug. 15, Justin Vanneilli, 15, collecting trash with his father for his family's highway landscaping business, saw the bent trees where the Toyota had fallen. "I looked over and seen the car," he says. "I told Dad to call 911."

After four nights in the hospital, a dehydrated and exhausted Tooter, her diabetes aggravated by the trauma, is back at Century Village. The car that hit her has not been located. "Tillie said she'd love for the police to find them," says a friend. "She'd love to tell them off."

Mike Neill
Linda Trischitta in Pembroke Pines

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