Two tow trucks were used in tandem to pull the 2000 Ford Expedition that went off the Anna Maria Bridge early Sunday morning to shore. One person is dead and two were injured. Alcohol was a factor, according to the state patrol.
By Tom Vaught
sun staff writer
HOLMES BEACH – An alcohol- related accident on the Anna Maria Bridge left one person dead, two injured and the bridge closed for seven hours Sunday morning while authorities searched for a possible fourth victim. They later determined there were only three in the car.
The driver and passengers in the 2000 Ford Expedition spoke mainly Spanish, leading to the misunderstanding about how many people were involved, according to Florida Highway Patrol Public Information Officer Lt. Mike Rushing.
The two injured men were identified as Gregorio Lopez-Chavarria, 21, of Bradenton, and Florentino Gonzalez-Doran, 35, address unknown. Both men were reported to be in serious but not life threatening condition. Lopez-Chavarria, the driver, has been charged with DUI. vehicular manslaughter and driving with a suspended license. The dead man’s identity has been withheld pending notification of next of kin.
Two men were behind the car on their motorcycles when the SUV struck the southern curb and went to the northern curb causing the vehicle to rotate and go over the northern side of the bridge into Anna Maria Sound at about 3:15 a.m. They turned their motorcycles around, got off the bridge and parked at the northern apron to swim out to where the vehicle landed.
Ian Haddix of Bradenton and Evan Purcell of Holmes Beach were credited with getting the survivors out of the SUV. They got some scratches in the process and Haddix severely wrenched his knee while carrying one of the men up the slippery embankment.
Purcell said he got to the vehicle and saw the driver, Lopez-Chavarria, on the roof. His foot was stuck.
“The tide was coming in and only his head was sticking up above the water,” he said. “He was screaming and pounding the water, calling ‘Mi hermano! Mi hermano!’”
“I dove down and grabbed his foot and finally got his shoe loose,” Purcell said.
After helping both of the survivors to shore, Purcell and Haddix swam back out to the submerged vehicle to look for what they believed was a third person still in the car.
“It was really scary diving down inside that car,” Purcell said. “It was pitch black and I was feeling around, hoping to feel an arm or something. But I didn’t know where the other person was and I couldn’t see anything.”
Haddix said he held onto Purcell as he made dive after dive into the vehicle.
“We were both worried that he might get tangled up on something, like a seatbelt, or that maybe the other person might grab him and he might get caught down there,” he said. “I kept a grip on him so I could pull him out.”
According to police, the three men in the Expedition had been looking for a place to buy beer after drinking at a bar on the mainland.
It took a towing company several hours to get the Expedition onto shore. The massive vehicle, which was full of water, caused a tow strap and a chain to break in the process. Boats from the Holmes Beach Police Department, Longboat Key Police, the Coast Guard and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission helped coordinate search and recovery efforts.
After the bridge reopened, vehicles coming over the span slowed to look at the twisted wreckage as it came out of the water. At one point, a driver almost rear-ended the vehicle in front of him as it nearly stopped to rubberneck.
Another driver reportedly said there was a second car in front of the Expedition leaving the Island at the same time.
“Investigators are looking into it at this time,” Lt. Doug Dotson, of the Florida Highway Patrol said, of the possiblity of a second car being involved.
Dotson said if anybody else was a witness or has information regarding the accident, they are asked to call Corporal Highsmith at 751- 7647, ext. 131.
Is the bridge safe?
This is the third accident on the bridge in a year and a half and alcohol was reportedly involved in all three. Two men have died.
The Florida Department of Transportation announced earlier that it would be rehabilitating the bridge soon, and some have questioned whether safety should be addressed in that project.
FDOT Public Information Officer William Thomas said stronger railings would not increase the safety factor.
“There is no safety issue with the bridge,” He said. “You could put up titanium railings, but when an impaired driver is involved, it changes the dynamics of any safety factors.”
Critics of the bridge say that the nine-inch-high curbs outside the two lanes could cause people to lose control of their vehicles, but Thomas said those curbs have their purpose.
“They are there to keep vehicles out of the pedestrian zone (the sidewalks),” he said. “Again, if an impaired driver hits one, that driver would more easily lose control of the vehicle and cause an accident.”
Thomas was asked if a lower speed limit would help keep the vehicles from becoming airborne and he said not likely in the case of an impaired driver, who might not know or care about the speed limit.
“Plans for the bridge do not include reinforcing the railings or changing the safety curbing at this time,” he said. “The department of transportation does not feel that there is a safety issue with the bridge, and neither do the residents who said more than five years ago that they wanted to keep the bridge as it is designed.”
Monday evening, Purcell and Haddix were still visibly upset that despite their efforts, one person died in the accident.
“I’m still sick about it,” Purcell said. “I keep thinking it over and over, wondering if there was something else I could have done. I mean, that was somebody’s son or father or brother in that car.”
Both men said they did not consider themselves to be heroes.
“I just did what I would hope someone else would do for me,” Haddix said. “I can’t imagine driving by and not trying to help.”