Man who drove car off Sunshine Skyway fishing pier found dead (w/ video)

St. Petersburg Fire & Rescue assists North River Fire District with an attempted rescue off of the south fishing pier of the Sunshine Skyway. [St. Petersburg Fire & Rescue] 
St. Petersburg Fire & Rescue assists North River Fire District with an attempted rescue off of the south fishing pier of the Sunshine Skyway. [St. Petersburg Fire & Rescue] 
Published December 23 2015
Updated December 24 2015

A man drove a car off the southern fishing pier of the Sunshine Skyway on Wednesday, plunging through a barrier and into Tampa Bay, authorities said.

The man, identified only as being from Eustis in Lake County, was soon found dead inside the sunken two-door red Mercedes.

The Florida Highway Patrol is investigating the incident, though witness reports cited in the Bradenton Herald suggest the man intentionally drove off the bridge.

Paul Robicheau, 61, of Parrish told the Herald he had been fishing when he saw the man, who looked to be in his 40s, pull up in the convertible about 2 p.m.

The well-dressed man got out to smoke a cigarette, Robicheau said. He walked to the pier wall. Then he drove back toward the fishing pier gate, turned around and sped toward the pier's end, crashing through a pier barrier at nearly 100 mph. Robicheau heard the engine roar.

Dr. John Sinnott was fishing with his grandson on a boat when his radio crackled with news of the car's plummet. He got to the scene in 10 minutes.

"I could see where the barrier wall had been rammed out, and there was an oil slick in front of the pier," Sinnott said. He called to the people on the pier and asked what had happened.

"I immediately put on a snorkel mask and dove in the water," he said.

The current was strong, the water cool. Visibility was low. Sinnott kept getting gasoline in his face. He dove three times. He couldn't see a person, just the murky outline of the car in the water, 22 feet deep.

"There was nothing that could be done that I could see," he said. "What a terrible tragedy, oh my gosh. This was just a shocking event."

Sinnott, chairman of internal medicine at the University of South Florida, stood by until authorities arrived. Divers from St. Petersburg Fire & Rescue located the car, which was then pulled out of the water with the man still inside.

"The people on the dock were just, they didn't know what to say," Sinnott said.

The fatal plunge wasn't the first from that pier. On the last day of 1998, a pier toll operator finished his midnight-to-8 a.m. shift, then sped down the pier, plunging his truck into the bay.

His truck clipped a Honda Accord near the end of the pier, then crashed through a foot-thick concrete barrier. He drowned.

William Dusty Sallee's death was ruled an accident without a suicide note or other evidence to prove his intention. But witnesses said Sallee, 38, had been driving 70 mph, staring straight ahead. Some said they heard the car accelerate before he reached the pier's end.

Contact Claire McNeill at cmcneill@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8321.

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