The last thing her father told her was: "I think I'm going to drown."
A daughter began to lose hope when she didn't hear from her father for 20 hours as flood water from Hurricane Ian rose in her Rotonda West, Florida, home around 2 p.m. last Wednesday. Stephanie Downing, a 32-year-old physical therapist, lived an hour away from her dad Stan Pentz, who stayed at a one-story condo building in Fort Myers. The 69-year-old retired chef texted his daughter saying he was trying to get out and the water was up to his shoulders. Downing told PEOPLE, "The last thing I heard my dad say was, 'I think I'm going to drown.'"
As the death toll kept rising as a result of the calamity, Downing feared the worst. "I just looked at my husband and said, 'I think my Dad is one of those people who are dead,'" Downing recalled. "When I saw my sister, we didn't even say words to each other. We just held each other and cried, because we thought our dad was gone." For 20 hours she didn't hear from her dad.
Florida Woman Reunites with Dad Who Disappeared in Hurricane Ian Flood Waters and Clung to Tree for 3 Hours.— Tommy Lightfoot Garrett (@LightfootInHwd) October 2, 2022
Downing later learned that her father who recently had a hip replacement had to cling to a tree for three hours to survive. She explained on GoFundMe, "During that 20 hours he tried to swim across his condo parking lot to the next building with a 2nd floor. While swimming he kicked something and realized it was the top of his car. The surge took him and he swallowed water, he thought he was going to drown. He was pushed into a wall of trees where he wrapped his arms and legs around branches to hold onto where he was. He held onto the trees in a category 4 hurricane of wind and rain for hours. When the surge started to slow he was able to wade through the water to the 2nd story condo. He wedged himself in a corner of the condo building until sunrise. He then walked to the Publix he works at and had someone contact me." Downing broke down with relief knowing that her dad was alive.
"My dad’s fighting spirit to live and God’s mercy got him through this truly grueling experience. He is currently living with us until we can get him back on his feet. He is truly a survivor and I am just so grateful," she wrote.
The family is familiar with hurricanes having been through Hurricane Charley in 2004. Downing is certain that the family knows "that we can rebuild," she told PEOPLE. "We know that we're a community. We know that we're strong and everyone is there for each other. We hadn't even met some of our neighbors before, but now we're like best friends," she added. "We're like, 'What do you need? Do you need us? Where's my chainsaw? Let me chainsaw my tree off your house.'" "Our community is really strong," she said. "That's what gives me hope."
Cover Image Source: GoFundMe