SEBRING — A man got lost and died Sunday on a nature trail in The Preserve of Sun ‘n Lake after a five-hour search, reportedly because he kept moving and authorities couldn’t pinpoint his exact location.
Ronald Bernard Fernandez, 61, first called 911 at 3:46 p.m. and told dispatchers he went for a walk at 1 p.m., but had been lost since then. Scott Dressel, Highlands County Sheriff’s Office spokesman, said dispatchers got disconnected from him three times over two and a half hours, tried to call him back eight times and then heard from Hardee County that his phone had connected to their 911 call center.
More than a dozen deputies along with K-9 units, air units from Highlands and Polk counties and four-wheelers from the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission tried to find him in the 1,350-acre wildlife preserve, Dressel said in a news release. Dressel also said service was spotty in the area, even for deputies.
It’s fairly rare for people to call saying they are lost in the woods, he said. Most use map functions on their phones to orient themselves. However, he reported that the terrain was difficult. Searchers were often in waist-deep water. Pings of his cell phone showed several different locations because he kept moving despite being advised to stay put. Fernandez also kept disconnecting, calling back several times to conserve his phone battery.
Dressel said Monday that Hardee County reported talking to him at 5:45 p.m., Highlands County last talked to Fernandez at 6:13 p.m., and the Polk County Sheriff’s Office helicopter arrived to help at 7:39 p.m.
The Polk County helicopter finally spotted Fernandez at 8:24 p.m., face down in shallow water about 300 yards from the last known location of his cell phone and 1.8 air miles from the trailhead at Sun ‘n Lake Boulevard and Balboa Boulevard. He had been out seven and a half hours.
In addition to that, Fernandez was behind a locked gate, Dressel said, and deputies had to call for a key.
Deputies did not find Fernandez’s phone or his shoes with him at the time, Dressel said. He also reported deputies found no visible signs of trauma. Cause of death will be determined by the District 10 Medical Examiner.
“Our hearts go out to Mr. Fernandez’s family,” Sheriff Paul Blackman said. “I know everyone involved in the search did their best trying to make this situation have a happy ending.”
High humidity and 90-degree heat made a dangerous situation, Blackman said. He advised anyone who becomes lost, especially in hot weather, to call 911, tell dispatchers as much detail as possible about their location, and wait.
“It doesn’t take a long time out in that heat to get dehydrated and disoriented, so the best idea is to conserve energy,” Blackman said. “We have all kinds of ways of finding you, but it will be a much quicker process if you are in one spot instead of moving around.”
The Mayo Clinic, at www.mayoclinic.org, states even mild dehydration can drain a person of energy.
Even mild exercise requires an extra 1.5 to 2.5 cups of water. Intense exercise of more than an hour requires more fluid intake, and either hot or humid air makes the situation more dangerous, the website adds.