Brownsville Police Department Spokeswoman Melissa Gonzalez said Luis Reyna Zuniga’s family told police the last time they saw the elderly man was about 5:30 p.m. The police department responded to the 500 block of E. St. Francis to investigate the welfare concern at around 8:38 p.m. to investigate the man’s disappearance.
During the course of the investigation, Gonzalez said police requested the Brownsville Fire Department join the search and deploy a drone in the effort to locate Zuniga, who suffers from unspecified medical conditions.
At 11:11 p.m., Brownsville Fire Department drone operator Desi Tristan spotted Zuniga sitting in tall grass in a field by the levee in the vicinity of W. 5th Street and Ramireno Lane, which is about a mile away from where he was last seen, authorities said.
As of Tuesday morning, Zungia was still in the hospital, but is in stable condition, Gonzalez said.
“This was a collaborative effort working together for a great success story,” Fire Chief Jarrett Sheldon said.
Deputy Fire Chief Cesar Pedraza said he felt that the use of the drone saved Zuniga’s life.
The rescue happened late at night right after a new moon when the night sky is absent of moonlight. The drone used to locate Zuniga is equipped with thermal imaging, which was able to spot Zuniga because of his body heat.
At first, Pedraza said the authorities were worried the man might be someone hiding from authorities in the area so police responded carefully, calling the man’s name out. On video of the rescue, once an officer realizes it’s Zuniga, the officer places his hands on the man’s back, comforting him.
First responders carried Zuniga out of the grass and transported him to the hospital.
While searching for the man, Pedraza said Tristan also spotted coyotes in the area.
Sheldon said the fire department has had the drone for about a year-and-a-half and has been a significant resource.
“The drone is a significant resource for rescues, wildfires, training and any situation that limits our visibility on the ground. We combine our life-saving skills with the latest technology for a safer community,” Sheldon said.
The fire chief said first responders have also used the drone in rescues on the Laguna Madre and near the Highway 48 boat ramp in instances where kayakers have become lost when the sun goes down.
“Our drone is used quite often,” Sheldon said.