NAPLES, Fla. — There was a 99 cent light at the end of the tunnel.
Submerged to the shoulders in Hurricane Ian’s floodwaters, a frantic Florida nurse was able to get the attention of her hero neighbor by waving a tiny battery-operated light out of a shattered window.
Speaking outside a Red Cross shelter in Naples where she is currently staying after her home was left unliveable and all her possesions floated away, Tracy O’Leary, 64, said this week she thought she was doomed to be among the over 100 people killed by the historic storm as it swallowed her home.
O’Leary, has lived in Bonita Springs for the last decade after moving from Lindenhurst, Long Island, said she had endured prior hurricanes on Florida’s western shore and decided to stay put this time.
When the hurricane made landfall heavy rains lashed her waterfront one-story cottage and it started flood, leaving her to hastily prepare a bag with some basic belongings, just in case.
As the waterline continued to rise, she decided to flee. Grabbing Angus, her beloved terrier, she attempted to open the front door, but it was stuck fast.
“My stomach dropped,” she said. “I hoped it would all just stop, but the storm was so crazy. There was no way out.”
As the floodwaters crept up — first to her knee and then her stomach — the air supply started to run out. Trapped and afraid as her furniture started to float, O’Leary climbed to the highest and most secure elevation she could.
“I got on the kitchen counter with Angus. He was so scared, yapping like crazy. But it just wouldn’t stop rising. There was nowhere to go. It was like a horror movie.”
She saw her life’s possessions — including a stereo, pictures, and clothing — bobbing in the filthy brown muck, flowing out of her blown-out window and into the street.
As the water swelled and with no one in earshot, O’Leary thought she would soon follow her belongings into oblivion.
Needing to elevate herself with only a few feet of headspace left, she then hitched her arm to the side of a half-submerged couch that was sticking out of the water. She gripped her pet in her other hand.
As the hours passed, the gasping woman saw the daylight slowly begin to recede.
“Please, God,” she recalls saying. “Please don’t let me be stuck in the dark. Please.”
O’Leary felt her head hit the ceiling fan and assumed the end was near. Then, out of the corner of her eye, she spotted a dim light flickering atop the floodwaters.
O’Leary had purchased a battery-operated candle for 99 cents at a Dollar Store in case she lost power during the storm and placed it in her bathroom the day prior.
Propped up on her furniture and immobile, O’Leary was unable to wade over to the light. But it slowly floated close enough for her to grab.
“I couldn’t believe it was still lit after all those hours,” she said. “It’s just a tiny little thing.”
With her hopes for survival all but extinguished, O’Leary waved the light back and forth across her broken window.
Two houses over, roughly 100 feet away, contractor Jesse Olsovsky, 46, was brushing his teeth on the second-floor of his home.
Olsovsky, who moved to Florida from Rochester, NY, several years ago, suddenly paused as he looked out the window.
“I thought I saw something, a light,” he said. “But maybe I was seeing things.. So I called my wife to take a look.”
Shanna Olsovsky, 42, also made out a faint light moving back and forth.
“Oh my God,” she said. “Tracy is in there. We have to get her!”
The couple, who had already taken in other neighbors who fled their homes, rushed to put on their bathing suits and headed out into the bedlam.
The duo initially waded through the water, but the fierce current forced them to swim, by which time they could hear O’Leary screaming from inside.
“Tracy!” Shanna yelled. “We’re here for you! We’re going to get you out.”
O’Leary said she initially thought it was the police, before realizing her neighbors had come to her rescue.
She handed Angus — shivering and sodden — over to Shanna first, before climbing through the shattered window and onto Jesse’s back.
Jesse then carried O’Leary on his back to his home and hauled her to safety on the second floor. The couple’s teenaged daughter applied peroxide to cuts she suffered escaping the flood.
“She was shaking for an hour and a half,” Jesse Olsovsky said. We just tried to make her calm and comfortable.”
O’Leary cried Wednesday while recounting the experience. She lost all her earthly possessions, but said she is just grateful to be alive.
“They saved my life,” she said. “I would not be here if it wasn’t for them. And that little candle. My miracle candle.”