ST. PETERSBURG — Under a cloudless sky, with several hundred thousand cheering spectators in downtown Savannah, Ga., on Saturday, 400 members of what might be St. Petersburg's best-known marching band were ripping through a patriotic medley in the annual St. Patrick's Day Parade, stepping in unison in their red, white and blue uniforms.
Then tragedy struck. The Greater St. Petersburg Area Second Time Arounders, picked to march ahead of all of the other bands in the parade, had about four blocks to go on a 2.5-mile route when one of its own collapsed.
Rick Sowers, a snare drum percussionist who had joined the band three years earlier, was down. Neither the two doctors from the crowd who rushed to his side nor hospital physicians were able to save him.
Mr. Sowers, a civil engineer and a beloved member of the band, died within hours. He was 51. The cause of his death is unknown.
Although the Second Time Arounders, a group geared to adults, has no upper age limit and has contained thousands of seniors in its 30 years of existence, no member had ever died during a performance, band director William Findeison said.
"It was quite a shock and a traumatic experience for band members who were around him and behind him when this happened," said Findeison, 70.
Apart from drumming his fingers to Jimmy Buffett or Spirogyra or anything else with a beat, Mr. Sowers had not really played music since his high school days in Palmetto until Renée Athey, a friend and fellow percussionist, talked him into joining the Second Time Arounders. He jumped right in.
"He was always excited to meet band members who were in their first year," said Athey, 56. "He liked to take that person under his wing."
The south Miami native, who had also played in his high school jazz ensemble, had given up music to concentrate on a demanding course of study that took him to two bachelor's degrees, one in physics from Stetson University and a civil engineering degree from the University of Florida.
He met Diana, his future wife, in 1987 at a cocktail party. They ended up talking late into the night and married three years later.
Mr. Sowers worked as a civil engineer for the engineering firm H.W. Lochner for 23 years, designing roadways and stormwater systems and consulting for water management district permitting.
In his spare time, he enjoyed sailing with his wife and son, Kyle, and chaired the sailing center committee of the St. Petersburg Yacht Club.
"It's just a relaxing feeling where you forget all your troubles," said Diana Sowers, 52, recalling trips on a speedy Laser sailboat. "The sun would be going down, and you're just sailing toward it."
Mr. Sowers had been laid off two years ago but found other work, his wife said. He was most recently employed by the engineering firm BES, she said.
He joined the Second Time Arounders in 2009 and enjoyed last year's trip to the Calgary Stampede in Canada, where the band performed in front of royal honeymooners Prince William and Kate.
On the bus trip to Savannah, he planned an outing to an Irish pub with Athey and other members, making sure to turn in early Friday for the Saturday parade.
A spectator's 3-minute clip posted on YouTube shows the band having turned for home on Bull Street, less than a mile from the finish. At 1:21 of the clip, a 6-foot-2 man playing a snare drum looks in the direction of the camera and smiles.
That was Mr. Sowers.
He collapsed several minutes later. Within moments, a trauma surgeon and another physician in the crowd were at his side. Mr. Sowers died at Memorial University Medical Center.
Diana Sowers has watched the YouTube clip several times.
"Although I was not there, I feel better being able to watch how happy he was," she said.
Staff writer Marissa Lang contributed to this report. Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.