When Raymond Thomas "Tom" Cummiskey died on Sept. 28 at age 87, he left behind his first wife, three sons, two stepsons, multiple in-laws, five grandchildren and four siblings.
He left behind a Sanibel-adjacent mobile home that had been flooded with more than 10 feet of storm surge. He left behind a refrigerator that floated off its footings, a pile of personal papers – birth certificate, passport – on his bed, a barometer on the wall, a beloved recliner he slept in more often than his bed.
He also left behind memories of a life well-lived: fishing and boating at the Jersey shore, flying planes, and time spent with his family.
Cummiskey lost his life when Hurricane Ian sloshed through Southwest Florida, hitting the outer edges of Lee County at about 155 miles per hour.
Although he had evacuated the day before the storm made landfall to a family house in Port Charlotte, when he saw The Weather Channel's predictions, he headed for home --and straight into Hurricane Ian's arms.
He ran to what he was running from
His daughter-in-law, Teri Cummiskey, married to son Jerry, said he fled his mobile home in the senior community Century 21 in south Fort Myers for their winter home in Port Charlotte on Sept. 27, when news of the hurricane's force broke.
They weren't there to welcome him that evening. They were at their New Jersey home, but kept in touch with him by phone, talking throughout the evening and into the next day.
The following morning, just hours before Ian collided with the shoreline of Southwest Florida and sat there for hours, flooding roads with Gulf and rain water and battering structures, trees and power lines with wind, Cummiskey spooked, and left his safe haven.
He saw a weather report by The Weather Channel's Jim Cantore that predicted 17 feet of storm surge would overtake Port Charlotte, Jerry said, and that's when he took off.
"That storm surge forecast scared the hell out of him," Teri said. "And he literally got in his car and ran from our house that morning with the storm threatening, only to run into what he was running from."
In a Ring doorbell video, Teri said, the last time anyone saw Cummiskey alive, he struggled with the lock on their front door, in too much of a hurry to leave. Eventually, she said, he just gave up, leaving their front door unlocked.
As best they can piece it together, Cummiskey headed back to his mobile home off McGregor Boulevard, thinking he would be safe from storm surge there. Instead, he ran straight into the eye of the storm, Teri said.
He made it within a few miles of his home before he went off the road and into a ditch in front of the Publix at Summerlin and Winkler roads.
There, he drowned.
Evidence suggests Cummiskey made it out of his car. He was found by passers-by, floating in the ditch where his 2019 Ford Edge SUV had come to a rest. He had a four-inch gash on the right side of his head.
In the days after Hurricane Ian's floodwaters receded from the roads, ditches and homes, a woman listed as a witness in the police report posted on Facebook that she was the one to find his body, Teri said. She wrote that she wrapped him in her grandmother's antique blanket she had in the trunk of her car, to keep him safe and give him some dignity in death.
Teri messaged her to say thank you, but she never heard back, she said. The woman did not reply to her message, she said, and later deleted the post.
It hurt, Teri said, not just to lose Cummiskey, but to know that if he had stayed in Port Charlotte, he would probably have been alive to welcome them back home after the hurricane.
Their Port Charlotte home was fine, Jerry and Teri said. Their lanai needed to be rebuilt, and the canal did see higher waters, but the predicted 17 feet of storm surge never materialized.
Had Cummiskey stayed there, he might have lived.
His family was his heart
Cummiskey was born July 20, 1935, in Towanda, Pennsylvania to Raymond Anthony Cummiskey and Margaret Gertrude Cummiskey. He was named for his father, but they called him Tom from the start, Jerry said.
Cummiskey served in the Air Force during the Korean War, and later married wife Darlene Ray in 1955. They went on to have three children, whom they raised in Hatboro, Pennsylvania.
They divorced amicably in 1971, and Cummiskey went on to marry his second wife, Dorothy. Together, they discovered a passion for Florida, particularly Islamorada, but later settled in the Whiskey Creek area of Fort Myers, vacationing there in the winters. Cummiskey was an engineer and business owner, selling water and wastewater pumps for his Pennsylvania-based company, Bucks Environmental Systems.
He retired at age 70 in 2005; Dorothy passed away in 2006.
His son, Jerry, greatly admired him. "He was a very intelligent and strong-willed man that worked with engineers and contractors to build pumping systems and complicated control systems for many years," Jerry wrote in Cummiskey's obituary.
But his family was his heart. For any family gathering, Jerry said, Cummiskey would hop in the car and drive north. "He loved his family," Jerry said.
He cherished the memories of fishing trips his father took him on when he was small.
Cummiskey was in a lot of pain his last few years, Jerry said, thanks to a surgery that left a couple of screws in his back.
"He had little trouble walking and he'd like to sleep on his La-Z-Boy because he just couldn't find comfort," Jerry said. "His last years were tough, but he still had a few years left. So it was just horrific to see him go the way he went because he was safe at our home in Port Charlotte."
"It's still hard, you know," Teri said, while her husband gingerly picked his way through his father's home. "You relive the whole day."
She remembered her last conversation with Cummiskey. He was still at the house in Port Charlotte, debating leaving. She told him if he was going to go anywhere, to call her first.
Looking forward with eye on the past
"We've adjusted," Teri said, as she and Jerry stood outside Cummiskey's now-rotting mobile home the afternoon of Nov. 2. Still, they kept turning the day over and over in their minds, talking it through. What if he had just stayed put?
But they had appointments to keep.
The sun shone bright overhead, and the air was sticky. Cloud cover was hard to come by. They had come to Cummiskey's home to finish getting any important belongings out of the place, return his drowned modem to CenturyLink, and so on.
They hoped to speak with someone in the front office about the future of the mobile home itself, too. They wanted it demolished.
Jerry's brother had been by already; they hoped more of his family photographs were in a storage unit he kept in Pennsylvania. They hadn't found much in the home.
"A lot of his memories were underwater," Teri said. "This place got hit hard."
Inside Cummiskey's mobile home, nearly nothing was salvageable. Although the structure sat several feet off the ground, about 7 feet of storm surge had entered the home.
Parts of the floor were missing; the rest was so rotted that it had sunk below the support beams. The refrigerator was on its side, lifted by the water. Flies circled it, and it stank of old food. The smell of mold permeated the home.
Cummiskey's favorite recliner was still parked in front of the television, with an old bedsheet on it. The home was in disarray, as swirling water had done its damage.
Incongruously, the white curtains on the walls looked pristine.
They picked up Cummiskey's remains earlier that day; he had been cremated.
The family plans to hold a celebration of life for Cummiskey in the spring, Teri said, at a time when their feelings aren't so raw, and they can remember the good times.
The Cummiskey family asks mourners to send donations in memory of Raymond Thomas Cummiskey and all of the other victims of Hurricane Ian to the American Red Cross.
Kate Cimini is an investigative journalist covering Florida. Share your story at (239) 207-9369 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Fort Myers News-Press: Tom Cummiskey fled safe haven, straight into eye of Hurricane Ian