A woman who left her Schenectady home a week ago and never returned was found alive after she built herself an “igloo” of vines and brush near the Mohawk River, police said.
Wilma Trotter, 60, stormed away from her home last Friday, leaving cash and her phone on the front steps. She called a taxi and left in search of “peace and quiet,” Schenectady police Detective Eric Peters said.
The taxi took her to Scotia, dropping her off near a lookout point beyond Collins Park, Peters said.
He said Trotter remembered the spot as the quietest place she knew.
“She wanted to get away and be alone,” he said. “She just stayed too long.”
She is now being evaluated at Ellis Hospital for exposure and possible symptoms of dementia.
But other than dehydration and exposure, Trotter survived the experience without a scratch.
When Trotter’s family reported her missing last Friday, Peters called every taxi company until he found the one that had picked her up. Police used the drop-off location as the starting point for their search.
They looked for her by boat, from the air and on foot. But no one found her.
As the days stretched on, Peters and his partner, Detective Paul Steele, began to fear the worst.
“Every day that went by it got worse,” Peters said.
Then on Tuesday night, temperatures dropped to 20 degrees. It snowed overnight.
The searchers were grim as they continued looking.
On Friday, a week after Trotter went missing, forest rangers joined the police to run a grid search in the area. As the rangers set up their plans, Steele proposed searching the municipal buildings nearby.
“I didn’t know if they were going to do that area,” Steele said.
There was no one inside. So they walked the fence line, still looking for Trotter, as the rangers got ready to start the search.
Suddenly Peters stopped. He peered through the fence at the thick underbrush down below.
“He said, ‘I can see her coat!’ ” Steele said. “He just started calling out, ‘It’s her clothes, her clothes are laying there.’ ”
They hurried down, pushing through dead vines and thick burrs.
They couldn’t see her body, just her coat. Peters reached down to pick it up.
And she sat up.
Both startled officers jumped back.
“It was a surprise to all of us,” Steele said.
She had been wearing the jacket like a blanket, covering even her head, Peters said.
He immediately asked her if she was thirsty, and opened a bottle of water he’d brought with him in preparation for a daylong search.
She “ripped” it out of his hand and drank the entire bottle in one gulp, he said.
“So she was dehydrated. I don’t think she ate or drank anything that whole time,” he added. “She was almost in a weakened state. She couldn’t stand up.”
But she was grateful to see him.
She referred to him repeatedly as her “hero” and described him to hospital officials as a “cutie pie,” he admitted reluctantly.
And when he told her he’d visit in a week to see how she was doing, she answered, “OK, cutie pie.”
Other officers teased Steele a bit, but nothing they said could diminish the unlikely triumph of finding her alive.
He said that after seven days, and such cold weather, he was expecting to find only her body — if anything.
“To actually find her alive … it felt great, to tell you the truth,” he said. “It’s not every day you get a happy ending in this job.”
He said he almost cried when her family members hugged him in the hospital, thanking him for finding her.
Steele got to announce the discovery on the police radio.
“To say, ‘We got her. she’s alive,’ was one of the best things in my 20-year career,” he said.
It’s not clear why Trotter didn’t call out as searchers and journalists passed close by her location. Peters said he thought she was asleep when he picked up her coat.
“Originally, I think she went there to be alone,” he said.
By the time she wanted to leave, he hypothesized, she was so weak from days without food and water that she couldn’t walk.
It’s possible she faded in and out of consciousness at that point. Police spokesman Lt. Mark McCracken said she had lost several days and thought it was Wednesday when she was found.
But she clearly tried to survive, he added. She used the vines and dead brush to dig a winding, tunnel-like shelter, he said.
He likened it to an igloo, but said the thick brush hid her from immediate view.
“Because they had a vantage point above her, they saw her,” he said.
Temperatures ranged from 80 degrees to 20 degrees during her week outdoors, McCracken said.