Mother grateful for daughter's safe return after North Naples beach search

Cpl. Mike Craig leads 7-year-old Amelia Wondrasch to her mother Monica Wondrasch, who is  overcome with emotion, near Clam Pass on March 31. Amelia became separated from her family during Easter dinner at a restaurant on Vanderbilt Beach. A Collier County Sheriff's Office helicopter found Amelia near Clam Pass, more than a mile away. Photo by Cpl. Dwaine Parker/CCSO

Cpl. Dwaine Parker/CCSO

Cpl. Mike Craig leads 7-year-old Amelia Wondrasch to her mother Monica Wondrasch, who is overcome with emotion, near Clam Pass on March 31. Amelia became separated from her family during Easter dinner at a restaurant on Vanderbilt Beach. A Collier County Sheriff's Office helicopter found Amelia near Clam Pass, more than a mile away. Photo by Cpl. Dwaine Parker/CCSO

A Pennsylvania woman wasn’t able to thank the dozens of people who stepped forward to search for her 7-year-old daughter who went missing on Vanderbilt Beach on Easter Sunday but she wants the community to know she is forever grateful.

Beachgoers, restaurant patrons, condo dwellers, and parking valets joined law enforcement officers and firefighters in the search for Amelia Wondrasch.

“It was humbling,” said Monica Wondrasch. “It was a community at its very best. It restores your faith in just about everything.”

A Collier County Sheriff’s Office helicopter eventually found Amelia running along the beach near Clam Pass, more than a mile away from where she went missing.

The girl later told her mother she was chasing seagulls and didn’t realize how far down shore she had gone.

Amelia became separated from her family, who were visiting from Malvern, Pa., while they were having Easter dinner at the Turtle Club restaurant on Vanderbilt Beach in North Naples on March 31.

Amelia had been collecting shells on the beach in back of the restaurant not far from where her parents, siblings and other family members were seated. When her mother went to bring her 5-year-old sister over to play, Amelia was nowhere to be found, Monica Wondrasch said.

As a former prosecuting attorney, Monica Wondrasch said she knew time was of the essence when a child goes missing.

The Collier County Sheriff’s Office was contacted and an extensive search began. Deputies with K9s and North Naples firefighters on ATVs combed the beach.

“People were coming up to me asking what they could do to help,”” said Cpl. John DiMaio, who coordinated the search effort for the Sheriff’s Office. “I used every resource I had.”

A Sheriff's Office helicopter hovered along the shoreline. Cpl. Dwaine Parker, the pilot, said deputies aboard the helicopter used the chopper’s public address system to announce to beachgoers that they were looking for a missing child and to give Amelia’s description.

After about 15 minutes some beachgoers began to point in the direction that the helicopter was heading, toward Clam Pass.

The helicopter crew spotted a girl in a blue sundress in the area of Clam Pass who matched Amelia’s description.

“I hovered beside her and asked her if her name was Amelia and she shook her head, ‘Yes,”’ Cpl. Parker recalled. “She was approximately 1.5 miles from where her parents were and no search crews had made it this far south, so I landed on the beach.”

Cpl. Mike Craig jumped out and brought her back over to the helicopter.

Cpl. Parker notified the Sheriff's Office's Communications Center. North Naples firefighters used their ATVs to transport the girl’s mother to their location, where an emotional reunion ensued.

Monica Wondrasch said even as she was being driven to the helicopter she doubted that the girl she was going to see would be Amelia.

“As we went I kept saying this is too far; it can’t be her,” she said.

But when Amelia emerged from the helicopter, her mother was overcome with emotion.

“It was unbelievably wrenching,” Monica Wondrasch recalled. “It was the most wrenching experience I ever had.”

An emotional scene played out along the beach as word of the girl’s recovery spread.

“People were clapping from the balconies of high rises,” Cpl. DiMaio said. “People came up to me with tears in their eyes and said, ‘Thank you, CCSO.’ It was very humbling for me.”

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