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Medical examiner reports outline how Hurricane Ian victims died

Experts say almost all deaths were preventable
Posted at 5:48 AM, Oct 25, 2022
and last updated 2022-10-25 05:48:04-04

FORT MYERS, Fla. — Hurricane Ian killed 109 people in 19 Florida counties, making it one of the deadliest storms in recent history.

We broke down what caused those deaths and the simple steps that could have prevented most of them.

“The quiet before the storm,” Mitch Pacyna said, narrating a cell phone video he posted on his Facebook page on September 25, three days before Hurricane Ian arrived at his Ft. Myers Beach home.

The sun was shining, and the Gulf, located a block from his home, sparkled.

Pacyna moved to Ft. Myers Beach from Illinois 27 years ago after retiring from his job at Federal Express.

His friends said he never missed an opportunity to cheer on the Chicago Bears or the Chicago Cubs.

“Always had a smile on his face. Always a nice guy,” said Mike Yost, who counted himself as one of Pacyna's best friends on the island.


“His place was like right on the Gulf, basically. The beach access was open with parking right across from his house,” Yost said.

“We’re gonna ride this one out”

Both Pacyna and Yost decided not to evacuate, even though local emergency officials warned residents they were directly in the hurricane’s path.

“They told us mandatory evacuation on the beach, but we’re gonna ride this one out,” Pacyna said in a video he posted on September 27, the day before Hurricane Ian hit.

As Hurricane Ian approached, Pacyna's Facebook timeline turned tragic.

Pacyna stayed with his longtime companion Mary and his dog Lulu.

“We have probably 24 hours to have a safe evacuation,” said Adam Montella, an emergency management expert who is currently Vice President of the Olson Group, Ltd. He served as a member of the FEMA advisory council.


Montella said when he worked as a local emergency manager, he used any means necessary to convince people of the importance of evacuating.

“I’ve handed out Sharpie pens to people, and if they totally refuse to leave, please write your Social Security number, next of kin on your body somewhere so we can identify you after the storm,” Montella said.

Pacyna's Facebook timeline showed just how bad the weather turned by 8 a.m. on September 28.

“Wrong decision!”

“Probably made a very bad decision to stay,” he said in a video he posted at 8:12 a.m.

The rain was pouring down, and the wind was howling. By 10:32, the storm surge began pushing water onto Pacyna's street.

“Surge is coming in. coming down the street already,” Pacyna narrated. “Alright, let’s hope for the best.”

Montella said when evacuation orders are called, you have to leave.

“You have to listen. You can’t outrun water,” Montella continued.

“16 years… never seen a river on our street,” Pacyna showed in a video. “Here it goes down our block.”

On the other side of the island, Yost hunkered down.

He said even a quarter of a mile from the Gulf, water was rising quickly outside his home.

“It was about a foot, then it was nine In a matter of minutes,” Yost said.

“Oh my God! Wrong decision!” Pacyna posted at 10:56 a.m. as his patio furniture and grill floated down the street.

“Most houses are completely underwater at 15 feet,” Montella said. “As we saw during Ian and other storms, that surge can come far inland. Especially during high tide. “

“This ain’t letting up yet. If it gets a little higher, we may have to go on the roof,” Pacyna said at 12:24 p.m. as the water rose to the top of his landing.

Pacyna couldn’t swim.

“The water just came in on the whole island,” Yost said.

In his final video, car alarms go off as cars float by. The front yard has become part of the Gulf.

“Ok,, (sic) we’re terrified!” Pacyna said in his final post.


Mary survived by holding onto a railing as the house floated away.

“Her and her neighbor were out in that weather for hours holding on for dear life,” Yost said.

“All preventable”

Pacyna's body was found days later.

He was among dozens of people who died after refusing to evacuate.

“All preventable. Most of those deaths are drownings. They died because they couldn’t swim. They are caught in their houses or vehicles,” Montella said.

According to medical examiner reports, 55 people drowned, including seven Cuban refugees whose boat sank. Others died from accidents.

Damon Utterback was trying to escape the storm by breaking out a window.

“I saw his body hanging out of the window,” Yost said.

Power outages led to deaths after preventing people from using oxygen and other medical devices. Reports said some suffered medical episodes but couldn’t get help.

Three people who lost everything took their own lives, and a relief worker was fatally shot during an argument.

“People stayed because they said it couldn’t be worse”

“It’s heartbreaking because that’s somebody’s father, somebody’s mother, somebody’s grandparent, somebody’s child. And it could have been prevented. That’s the real tragedy of it,” Montella said.

After the storm, Yost found a Cubs pennant and empty pilings where Pacyna's house once stood.

Mitch's former home

He lost his own home and business and nearly lost his life.

Yost said he’ll never ignore an evacuation order again, even if his neighbors choose to stay.

“They were like we made it through Charlie, we made it through Irma,” Yost said. “People stayed because they said it can’t be worse than those. And, of course, it was much, much worse. “

GoFundMe pages have been set up to benefit Mary, who lost her home, and Mike Yost, who lost his home and haunted pub tours business.

A celebration of Mitch Pacyna’s life will be held at the American Legion in Franklin Park, IL, on November 20.

According to Yost, Pacyna’s dog Lulu was found uninjured near her former home the day after the storm.

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