LARGO — Although they spend most of their time clearing the roads, about 50 tow truck drivers brought traffic to crawl Sunday as they held a funeral procession for a colleague who died last week.
A tow truck is not the most formal vehicle — it is a working machine — but dozens of them with horns honking and beacon lights flashing are an imposing sight. And for decades, it has been a tradition for the trucks and their drivers to mourn their dead with a long and slow drive through town.
On Sunday, drivers from around the Tampa Bay area gathered outside the Moss Feaster Funeral Home in Largo to honor Scott Hinchliffe, who died July 9 at the age of 46.
An employee of Joe's Towing and Recovery in Largo, he was driving his heavy-duty tow truck south on Interstate 75 near Ellenton when a tire blew and he lost control. The truck slammed into a concrete embankment, tossing Mr. Hinchliffe out of the truck and killing him.
"He was a very hard-working guy," said David Stuart, who works for Joe's Towing and remembered that Mr. Hinchliffe, who lived in Madeira Beach, often talked about the show horses he owned.
Mr. Hinchliffe was a member of the National Reining Horse Association, which promotes reining, a sport in which riders guide horses through a predetermined routine while holding the reins in one hand.
Stuart said the accident could have happened to any driver. "You put enough miles on a truck, it heats up, and that's all it takes."
The job appeals to people who love the adrenaline rush of helping those stranded in sometimes desperate situations, said Paul Hartigan, who works for Kotakis Auto & Towing in Clearwater.
"It's a thrill not knowing what's going to come next," he said. "You could pull up to car with a dead battery or a car turned upside down."
The job also comes with perils. Ginger Darling, who owns Nationwide Towing and organized the procession, said it was the second time in two years that a local driver had died in a road accident. Tow truck drivers respond to calls at all hours and in all conditions, she said, and cars do not give them the same deference on the road as they would a fire truck or police car.
"The average public person does not have a clue what we do and how dangerous it is," she said. "We'd like the public to realize we are not the nasty, dirty drivers we're sometimes perceived as. We want them to see that we stand together."
Darling said Mr. Hinchliffe worked in towing since the 1980s.
However much they compete with one another for the lowest prices or the fastest response times, many different companies took part in the procession.
It traveled south to Ulmerton Road and onto 66th Street N, pausing Joe's Towing and Recovery where a flag flew at half-mast, before returning to the funeral home.
Along the route, onlookers stopped to honk their horns, take pictures and salute the drivers.
As a chorus of honks and beeps rose from the road, Darling chuckled. "That's a hell of a sweet sound," she said.
Anna M. Phillips can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779.