Two men were spared a cold night in the swamp after they got lost during a New Year's Day hike in the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve.
Their lifeline: The voice of Collier County sheriff's Cpl. Jack Hazel, a veteran of at least a half dozen rescues during his career, who found the pair about two hours after they called for help.
Derrick Lee Cross, 28, 498 Echo Circle, Marco Island, and Donald Charles Cross, 37, 25579 Fenner Circle, Bonita Springs, set out on their hike in the eastern Collier County preserve around 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, according to reports.
As darkness set in and temperatures dipped, the men became disoriented and were unable to find their way back to their car.
They contacted CCSO from a cell phone around 6 p.m.
A helicopter search was initiated but the chopper was forced to turn back because of strong winds and poor visibility.
Cpl. Hazel entered the dark, heavily wooded area on foot with only a flashlight to guide him. He eventually found the men after a two-hour search, which included crossing through water. The men were using a digital camera for light when Hazel found them less than a mile west from where they parked their truck on Janes Scenic Drive, he said. They were not injured.
It would have been impossible for a helicopter crew to find the hikers because it was so dark and windy and the woods were so dense, Hazel said.
Hazel said he never veered from the tram path in the preserve and used his voice to establish contact with the lost hikers, making them come to him.
"If I had gotten off that tram, it would have been me you were searching for today," a hoarse-voiced Hazel said Wednesday.
Hazel is getting a reputation for being a people-finder. In September, Hazel discovered an 88-year-old man who was missing for three days in North Naples.