One of the security cameras mounted on our Hernando County bureau points toward the front parking lot and State Road 50. At 5:15 p.m. on Dec. 9, it captured a 2000 Toyota Camry as it slowly rolled to the stop light at Winter Street.
The Camry sat idling at SR 50 as cars raced by from the east and west. When the light turned green, it proceeded into the intersection to turn left when — BAM! — a late-model Cadillac blew through the red light and crushed the smaller car.
But for a split second, I would have been writing an obituary of our assistant editor in Hernando, Greg Hamilton. The investigating trooper told me Greg would not have survived had the Cadillac struck the Toyota in the door. The trooper also said he was all-too-familiar with this dangerous intersection near the Suncoast Parkway.
Several drivers who witnessed the crash just kept on going. The driver of the Cadillac, a 76-year-old Spring Hill man, told the trooper he had a green light. He let an ambulance take him to a local hospital, where he was treated for minor injuries and released. Hamilton, 53, waved off an ambulance, but as the evening cold set in, he realized something was wrong when he had trouble holding a cell phone to his ear.
He had left work early to drive with his 26-year-old son, Chris, to Georgia for a weekend hunting deer. Chris, instead, took his dad to Citrus Memorial Hospital near their home in Inverness. The toll from the accident: six broken ribs, a punctured lung, a separated shoulder, several herniated discs and numerous bruises. That weekend he caught pneumonia. "When I coughed,'' he said, "I thought I would die.''
Hernando Times editor Mike Konrad had figured to leave that weekend to visit family in Illinois. He had planned the Christmas season trip for months but now figured he would have to cancel, since his assistant editor was in the hospital. I told Konrad I would fill in for him. So he left his home in Brooksville at 7 a.m. Sunday, hoping to get a little north of Nashville, the halfway point.
As he drove his Toyota SUV on Interstate 65, the weather started to turn bad. Snow hit the windshield and Konrad thought it best to get off the road the first place he saw motels. That turned out to be Exit 46, a half-hour south of Nashville. As he approached a curve on the exit ramp, his vehicle started to fishtail.
"Stupidly,'' he said later, "I hit the brakes.''
He lost control of the Toyota, struck a road sign and slid down an embankment. Konrad found himself on his side, held in place by his seat belt. A police officer ran to check on him but couldn't stop to help once he found Konrad had not been injured. Four other vehicles had also wrecked on the same ice.
Two editors, two accidents.
The nervous third editor arrived in Hernando County that Monday morning. Reporters reminded me that "things happen in threes,'' a cliche, granted, but probably rooted in truth. When I left the office for lunch that first day, I came to the same intersection where Greg had been hit, ready to turn east and head into Brooksville. I noticed skid marks and glass in the ditch. And when the light turned green, I hesitated several seconds before a man in a pickup behind me blew his horn.
Accidents like this will make you never assume somebody is going to stop at a light.
Photographer Will Vragovic got the security camera footage of Hamilton's accident and opened it on his 20-inch computer monitor.
I've know Greg since we worked together in St. Petersburg 25 years ago. He's a good man, husband, father, Boy Scout master. It made me sick to see the wreck, but I watched it over and over. It was like one of those TV shows that exploit carnage, but you never know those people. This was our friend and colleague.
Most traffic accidents, I'll admit, never make it onto these pages. The sad and frightening reality is there are so many that law enforcement doesn't have time to provide information. There are exceptions, naturally — usually fatal.
Troopers in this district run from one wreck to the next, badly outnumbered. We've waited since Oct. 13 for results of an investigation of a young mother in Land O'Lakes who was hit by a car while walking her 7-year-old son to his school bus stop.
We've waited since Nov. 6 to learn why a Hudson woman drove her car into triplet girls playing in their yard, killing one and badly injuring another.
The Highway Patrol simply says be patient.
The trooper who came by to watch our video of Hamilton's wreck drove over to the other guy's house to write him a ticket. On Monday, the man paid a $254 fine and agreed to attend driving school.
That same day, Hamilton sat at his computer, still in pain but able to work. He edited a story about a crash at U.S. 19 and Pepper Street in Spring Hill. Troopers said a 42-year-old man drove a Cadillac through a red light, striking a 2008 Toyota in the driver's side door and killing a 75-year-old man.
But for a split second …
Bill Stevens is the North Suncoast Editor. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (727) 869-6250.