WHAT: Media opportunity
DATE: Thursday, July 25
TIME: 11 a.m.
LOCATION: Collier County Emergency Services Center, 8075 Lely Cultural Parkway, East Naples. ***Members of the media should meet in the lobby***
SUMMARY: For nearly two hours, Tony Radelat was pinned upside down in his ultralight plane, while he talked on his cell phone with a Collier County Sheriff’s Office emergency dispatcher who reassured him help was on the way.
“All through the ordeal he just kept me going,” Radelat said of CCSO Senior Dispatcher Richard Swink. “He kept saying, ‘We have you. We have your position. We’re coming for you.’ It kept me from passing out.”
While he was on the phone with Radelat, Swink was trying to guide emergency responders to the injured pilot who was bleeding from the head and didn’t know his location.
“I just remember thinking that I just had to keep him awake because I knew if he would have passed out it would have been infinitely harder for us to find him and the result might not have been the same,” Swink said.
On Thursday, Radelat will meet Swink, along with the deputies, firefighters, paramedics and other emergency responders who rescued him, at the CCSO Communications Center, the nerve center for the rescue effort.
“I just want to tell them thank you,” said Radelat, who requested the meeting. “It’s a small token for what they did.”
The 67-year-old part-time Cape Coral resident also plans to bring before-and-after photos of his plane and X-rays of his injuries to share with his rescuers. He suffered a broken left leg, broken back, dislocated hip, and a punctured lung in the ordeal. He said he underwent several surgeries and can now walk without the assistance of a wheelchair or cane. The father of two said he has also given up flying at the request of his wife.
“It was a life-changing event for me,” said Radelat. “I didn’t think I would make it. Anything I do now is a plus.”
On the morning of March 16, Radelat flew his ultralight plane from Immokalee Regional Airport to Fort Myers Beach. It’s a trip the experienced pilot has made many times.
But on his way back, he encountered strong turbulence, which caused his single-engine plane to crash.
Radelat said he typically doesn’t take a cell phone when he flies because reception is usually poor, but this trip he did.
“My situation was dire,” Radelat recalled “I was pinned down and couldn’t get out. My plane radio didn’t work. I was lucky I had my cell phone in my jacket pocket. That saved my life.”
He dialed 911. Swink picked up the phone and was able to obtain a general location for Radelat on the southwest side of Lake Trafford in Immokalee using GPS on the pilot’s cell phone. That turned out to be more than a half mile from where the plan was eventually found.
For the next hour and 58 minutes Swink stayed on the phone with Radelat, while using the satellite map on his computer to direct emergency responders in helicopters and on all-terrain vehicles through acres of thick brush and trees.
The search became a game of hot or cold, using the sounds of the CCSO and EMS helicopters to try to pinpoint his exact location. When it appeared rescuers were getting closer, Swink conferenced in a call to the cell phone of one of the deputies on the ground. The deputy was able to judge Radelat’s location by the sound of the helicopters coming from the pilot’s phone. Eventually as the deputy got closer he could hear Radelat’s cries for help.
Rescuers found Radelat upside down in his plane in a tree about 20 feet above the ground.
Radelat said he remembers thanking Swink at the end of the call, but little else about being rescued. He passed out soon after help arrived.
When the call was over more than a dozen dispatchers and radio operators in the room gave Swink a standing ovation.
“They applauded Richard for sticking with him (Radelat)” said Communications Supervisor Bob Finney II. “It takes a special kind of person to keep talking and not have dead air and to keep calm and ask questions.”
Swink, 28, shrugged off the praise.
“I’m fully confident that anyone who answered the phone would have done the same thing and would have gotten the same result. I just happened to be the one who answered the phone.’’