TAMPA — Usually, Transportation Security Administration executive Jim Flaherty gets to Tampa International Airport by 5:30 a.m. He was a little late Wednesday, arriving with drops of blood — not his — on his shirt and streaks of mud on his slacks.
He had a good excuse. Here it is:
As Flaherty, 58, the TSA's deputy assistant federal security director for screening, made his predawn drive from New Port Richey, a white Buick zoomed past him on Gunn Highway, south of Odessa. A few minutes later, Flaherty saw wreckage in the woods. The car had missed a curve, apparently.
Flaherty and another driver pulled over. They trudged down a small ditch in the darkness to check on the driver. Smoke poured from under the crumpled hood. They heard screams for help, Flaherty recalled.
Flaherty went to the driver's side door, pinned against a tree. The driver, a woman, screamed she was in pain and stuck in the car. Small flames started coming from under the hood, licking at the windshield.
Flaherty ran to the other side and tried to pull the woman out, he recounted later Wednesday, but she couldn't move. The other man slid into the back of the car, freed her leg and helped Flaherty pull her from the car.
The men carefully dragged her to the road. As they got to the pavement, Flaherty turned back and saw the front half of the car engulfed in flames.
"It was really cooking," Flaherty said later, his accent giving away his New York roots.
Before joining the TSA, Flaherty spent 20 years in the New York City Police Department. He did a little bit of everything at the department: patrol, robbery, narcotics, sex crimes. He left as a detective. Saw some crazy stuff. He never had a drive to work like Wednesday's, though.
As they waited for emergency responders, Flaherty talked to the woman. She told him she was 24, also from New Port Richey and works at McDonald's.
Authorities did not release her name. She was airlifted to St. Joseph's Hospital, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office said.
Soon, ambulances arrived. Flaherty and the other man spoke briefly with deputies.
Flaherty didn't get the other guy's name. It was Tyquan Dawkins, also from Pasco County, the Sheriff's Office says. He couldn't be reached.
Flaherty and Dawkins shook hands and parted ways. Flaherty called the office to say he was going to be a little late. His story got around, and he spent a good chunk of Wednesday talking to reporters.
Flaherty handled the attention with aplomb. He had no special plans for Wednesday night, just a drive back home and dinner with his daughter.
"It is what it is," he said. "Just another day at the office."
Will Hobson can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or firstname.lastname@example.org.