IMMOKALEE — As his 2-year-old daughter Denise fidgeted in his lap, climbing over his shoulder and grasping for his cell phone, Cirilo Hernandez kept his weathered hands around the young girl’s waist.
He wasn’t letting her get away again.
Shortly before midnight Sunday, Denise Hernandez vanished from her family’s southwestern Immokalee house, gone through a bedroom window. Family and friends feared an abduction, wondering how a 2-foot-tall, 40-pound girl could pull herself out a window.
But nearly 10 hours later, as the morning sun rose over a nearby pasture, rescuers spotted Denise toddling alone through an open field, alone and unharmed.
“Yesterday I felt very debilitated. I was at the end,” Cirilo Hernandez said in Spanish Monday afternoon, sitting in a white plastic chair on his family’s patio. “But I feel really sentimental right now.”
The joyous ending came after a tense search for the toddler, who sheriff’s deputies now believe climbed out the window and wandered through the nearby terrain throughout the night. By Monday afternoon, Denise Hernandez was back home, dressed in pink and blue pajamas, none worse for wear save a rash of mosquito bites.
No charges are pending against the girl’s parents, though a Department of Children and Families spokeswoman said a case has been opened following the disappearance.
Nearly four years after the still-unsolved disappearance of 6-year-old Adji Desir on the eastern side of town, Hernandez’s disappearance stoked the worst fears in Immokalee.
Cirilo Hernandez believed his daughter had been swiped by an abductor, and friends and family had no reason to suspect the toddler had been taken as part of a domestic or violent dispute. Cirilo, a landscaper in Immokalee for more than a decade, and Marcelina, a stay-at-home mother, have five children.
“They don’t have any enemies or things like that,” said family friend Geneva Ramos, 29, who was at the scene Monday morning. “It’s kind of strange.”
Neighbor Carlos Arviso, who lives next door to the Hernandezes, said his dogs started barking after 11 p.m. Sunday, about 10 minutes before Cirilo Hernandez banged on his front door. Arviso called 911 and watched as law enforcement agencies descended on the area.
“They had dogs, a helicopter landed in the field and I guess they had people helping them out going through the woods,” Arviso said. “They even went inside people’s houses and were searching.”
Throughout the night, more than 100 people from 20-plus agencies canvassed the pastures and woods surrounding the Hernandezes’ small, red-roofed home. Helicopters with spotlights circled the area. Cirilo Hernandez shouted his daughter’s name as he paced up and down Wells Street, occasionally vomiting.
Then, at 9:10 a.m., the little girl seemingly appeared from nowhere. Just as tracking dogs had been unleashed, a group of about 15 people spotted Denise walking through an open field, less than a quarter-mile west of her house. Only when rescuers tried to scoop her up did she cry.
A few relatives saw Denise before she was shuttled to a hospital. Her father received the news while at a Sheriff’s Office substation.
Bruno Campos, a neighbor who spent most of the night helping the search, said he called Cirilo Hernandez moments after the 2-year-old was located, hearing sobs of joy on the other end.
“It’s pretty amazing they found her alive,” Campos said. “It brings joy to everybody that they found her OK.”
Sheriff’s officials continue to investigate how the toddler escaped through a window, including whether Denise opened the window herself. Cirilo still suspects a kidnapper took Denise.
“I don’t think my daughter was able to lift it,” Cirilo Hernandez said. “I think someone lifted the window and someone took Denise out.”
While that unknown is investigated, the Hernandezes are elated to be reunited.
“Thank God I got my daughter,” Cirilo Hernandez said. “Thanks for the policemen for helping me out and finding her.”
Staff photographer Dania Maxwell contributed to this report.