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Video: Grandma trapped in car: ‘I don’t dwell’ on memories

  1. Transcript of: Grandma trapped in car: ‘I don’t dwell’ on memories

    MEREDITH VIEIRA, co-host: Back at 8:12. This morning on TODAY'S BUZZIEST STORIES OF THE DECADE , Tillie Tooter . We first met this remarkable survivor back in 2000 . Today, she's a great grandma, still going strong . We're going to talk to her in a moment, but first NBC 's Kerry Sanders has her story.

    KERRY SANDERS reporting: Ninety-three-year-old Tillie Tooter. You're going to be around for a nice, long time with us.

    Ms. TILLIE TOOTER (Survived Three Days Trapped In Car After 40-Foot-Plunge): Just as long as I can do for myself.

    SANDERS: A woman with an unforgettable name and an unforgettable story.

    MATT LAUER, co-host: Now a remarkable story about a real survivor.

    SANDERS: August 2000 . Then 83 years old, Tillie Tooter was headed to Fort Lauderdale Airport when she disappeared. For three days, a frantic search until...

    Unidentified Reporter: She flipped several times. He did land upright.

    SANDERS: In a swamp 40 feet below an elevated highway , her mangled car wedged between trees was spotted by a teenage boy. Inside, Tillie Tooter , and remarkably the Brooklyn native was still alive. And days later, she was holding a news conference.

    Ms. TOOTER: This is the way my whole body looks from bites. I'm itchy all over. I'm black and blue. But I don't care, I'm here.

    SANDERS: Tillie had survived three days on only raindrops she gathered in her steering wheel cover and on what she had in her purse. It's as fresh in her mind today as it was then.

    Ms. TOOTER: I found a peppermint candy, a cough drop and one slice of gum.

    SANDERS: Tillie Tooter learned how to survive early. A child who started working at the age of 13 when the Depression took her family's wealth; a new mother who struggled to feed her daughter when World War II stole her husband at Normandy .

    Ms. TOOTER: I had a hard life, a very tough life.

    SANDERS: A tough life that did not toughen her heart. She even found kindness for the man who bumped her off the highway and left her to die.

    Ms. TOOTER: I forgave him after a bit. I forgave him.

    SANDERS: These days, Tillie Tooter is still a celebrity. Why are we still talking about Tillie Tooter nine years later?

    Unidentified Woman: Let me ask you something. How many Tillie Tooters have come along in the last nine years? She's terrific. She is one of a kind .

    Ms. TOOTER: Me, an ordinary, everyday house frau. I'm just an ordinary person.

    SANDERS: And that's one more reason we love you, Tillie Tooter . For TODAY, Kerry Sanders, NBC News, Pembroke Pines, Florida.

    VIEIRA: And the one and only Tillie Tooter is with us this morning along with her daughter Linda Simms . Good morning to you both.

    Ms. TOOTER: Good morning.

    Ms. LINDA SIMMS: Good morning.

    VIEIRA: You know, we were talking in the break, Tillie , and I asked you about how well you remember everything that happened way back then. And you said not only do you remember it well, but you still sometimes have nightmares.

    Ms. TOOTER: Not as often as I -- as in the beginning, but they're just as strong and they're fleeting. They don't last too long, thankfully.

    VIEIRA: Yeah. How are you doing physically, because you sustained quite a few injuries?

    Ms. TOOTER: Well, I have a torn rotator cuff, I have a ruptured disk in my neck, I have back problems, but I don't dwell on those things.

    VIEIRA: No, you don't.

    Ms. TOOTER: No, I don't. Today, we live today, and I'm happy to be here.

    VIEIRA: You know, after three days, when the authorities finally found you, the thing that they -- that they all said was how resourceful you had been. They couldn't believe how resourceful you had been. At one point, I think you took your socks off and you were letting the rain water soak into the socks and then sucking on the socks. You sucked on a button to keep your mouth moist because that produced saliva. How did you know to do those things, Tillie ?

    Ms. TOOTER: I think it was just instinctive. The will to live is very powerful, very strong, and I have a lot to live for. And I was hopeful that they would find me, up until the third day.

    VIEIRA: And the third day you started to lose hope.

    Ms. TOOTER: That's -- well, I made my peace with God. I felt repentant for anything that I may have done to hurt anybody and glad for the things that I did that were good. I raised a beautiful daughter by myself with two -- and have two beautiful grandchildren, and I love people, people seemed to like me and I have a lot to live for.

    VIEIRA: Well, you did survive because that young man, that teenager, Justin , who happened to spot you while he was clearing debris off the highway. You were in touch with him for a while and then sort of lost touch. He moved out of Florida .

    Ms. TOOTER: Yes.

    VIEIRA: Have you been back in touch with him?

    Ms. TOOTER: Yes, he got -- called me about six months -- four or five months ago to tell me that he was moving back to Florida and that he would get in touch with me. I can get in touch with his mother now and his father -- stepfather lives in Florida . So I'm calling them. I call them occasionally to see what he's doing.

    VIEIRA: Just to see what's going on.

    Ms. TOOTER: Yes.

    VIEIRA: Linda , your mom, it had to be the worst three days of your life, certainly in agony.

    Ms. SIMMS: Without a doubt.

    VIEIRA: How has she changed since all this?

    Ms. SIMMS: She's just a very strong woman and she's very self-sufficient, and she really hasn't changed from this experience, only she's always been my best friend , and so that's the best way I can describe her, and she still is my best friend .

    VIEIRA: Yeah. We decided, Tillie , the reason you survived is because of that Brooklyn in you. That's it. Stay healthy...

    Ms. TOOTER: That's true.

    VIEIRA: ...and happy. And I know you're still driving, but they don't let you drive to the airport anymore. Just back from.

    Ms. TOOTER: No, just back from the airport.

TODAY contributor
updated 12/9/2009 10:38:02 AM ET 2009-12-09T15:38:02

Nine years after she made headlines for surviving three days trapped in her car after it flipped off a highway some 45 feet into a swamp, the legend of Tillie Tooter only grows. Spry and straight-talking at 93, she still drives herself around, revels in the joys of being a new great-grandmother, and is a hit on the speaking circuit in Florida retirement communities.

The nonagenarian proved as plucky as ever when she appeared on TODAY Wednesday as part of a weeklong “Buzziest Stories of the Decade” feature. Sitting with her daughter, Linda Simms, Tooter recounted to Meredith Vieira the events that made her a nationwide celebrity.

Tooter told Vieira she still suffers from the physical effects of her vehicular drama — but she’s far from seeking sympathy.

“I have a torn rotator cuff, I have a ruptured disc in my neck, I have back problems,” she said. “But I don’t dwell on those things. We live today, and I’m happy to be here.”

Survival mode
That Tooter is around to tell her story at all is a happy miracle in itself. On Aug. 12, 2000, she was driving her Toyota Tercel to the Fort Lauderdale airport to pick up her granddaughter Lori when a car rear-ended her.

Tooter’s car flipped several times before coming to rest in a mangrove swamp infested with alligators, snakes and bugs. She honked her horn for help, but her battery died before anyone heard her.

Tooter prayed — but she also went into survival mode. Her food rations consisted of a piece of peppermint candy, a stick of gum and a cough drop. She used a pair of golf socks to absorb rainwater, then sucked the moisture out of them. Using a trick she learned from an old John Wayne movie, she dislodged a button from her shirt and sucked on it to keep her mouth moist.

Her ordeal finally ended when a teenager, whom Tooter calls “my angel,” spotted Tooter’s car as he walked along the highway and called for help. By that time, Tooter had been trapped in her car for three days, and admitted to Vieira she was prepared to meet her maker.

“I made my peace with God,” Tooter recalled. “I felt repentant for anything I may have done to hurt anybody, and glad for the things that I did that were good.”

Tough life, tough lady
Within days of being rescued, tough-as-nails Tooter gave a press conference, announcing, “I’m itchy all over, I’m black and blue, but I don’t care. I’m here.”

Daughter Linda said she believes the hard row her mother hoed her whole life led to her being able to survive her ordeal. Raised in Brooklyn, Tooter began working at 13 as her family struggled through the Great Depression. She raised Linda on her own after losing her soldier husband in the D-Day invasion in 1944.

When Vieira expressed amazement that she was able to survive her entrapment in the swamp, Tooter responded: “It was just instinctive. The will to live is very strong, and I had a lot to live for.”

Still, Tooter says her ordeal still visits her dreams.

“Not as often as the beginning, but they’re just as strong,” she said. “They’re fleeting; they don’t last too long, thankfully.”

Tillie Tooter was driving her car to the Fort Lauderdale airport in August 2000 when she was rear-ended and fell 45 feet into a swamp.

‘One of a kind’
While Tooter may never forget her life-or-death experience, neither have her friends and admirers. She’s regularly embraced by strangers, still gets the occasional fan letter, and travels around to retirement communities to give unscripted talks. Tooter said the main message she delivers is “never give up hope.”

It may seem unlikely that Tooter still gets attention nearly 10 years after her accident, but a card-playing pal of Tooter’s told NBC News it’s no surprise to the people who know the great-granny with the outsize personality.

“Let me ask you something: How many Tillie Tooters have come along in the last nine years?” one friend said. “She’s terrific; she’s one of a kind.”

After surviving three day trapped in her car, Tooter was rescued. She still has bad dreams about her ordeal.
Tooter’s daughter Linda Simms agrees, telling Vieira her mother “has always been my best friend” as she clutched her mom’s hands on the TODAY couch. And even after her ordeal, Tillie is the same mother she’s always known and loved.

“She’s a very strong woman, and she’s very self-sufficient,” Simms told Vieira. “She really hasn’t changed from the experience.”

While Tooter obviously revels in the attention she continues to receive, she also has moments when she wonders what all the fuss is about.

“Me, an ordinary, everyday hausfrau!” she told NBC News. “I’m just an ordinary person.”

Many would disagree.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints


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