TAMPA — Owners of a towing company suspect a mattress in the road caused a massive pileup Thursday that seriously injured a Hillsborough sheriff's deputy and sent seven others to the hospital, the Sheriff's Office said.
Initially, deputies said a 41-ton crane's air brakes might have failed, sending it careening into a busy intersection and triggering a chain reaction of crashes.
The crane broad-sided a sheriff's cruiser, shoving it over a median into traffic stopped at a red light, officials said. Rescuers found the deputy in a pile of crumpled metal, her body just inches from one of the crane's giant wheels.
Patrol Deputy Deborah Walker, 51, was taken to St. Joseph's Hospital. The 26-year veteran is expected to survive.
"It's a miracle," said sheriff's Capt. Alan Hill, who works in District 1 with Walker.
A HART bus with a dozen passengers, a dump truck, an SUV and a van were also part of the pileup, which occurred at Hillsborough Avenue and 56th Street about 11:19 a.m. Drivers of the van and SUV went to hospitals, along with five people from the bus, the Sheriff's Office said.
Their injuries did not appear to be life-threatening, said a sheriff's spokesman, Deputy Larry McKinnon.
Here, according to McKinnon, is what happened:
The crane, driven by Kevin D. Davis, 25, of St. Petersburg, was going east on Hillsborough when the light at 56th Street turned red. Unable to stop, the driver hit two northbound vehicles: the sheriff's cruiser and a Honda CRV, driven by Majid Sharifi, 56, of Valrico.
The crane's momentum pushed both vehicles over the Hillsborough median, plowing them into a van, dump truck and HART bus stopped in the westbound lanes.
Both Sharifi and the van's driver, Veronica Fortunet, 36, of St. Petersburg, had incapacitating injuries, according to the Sheriffs Office.
Dump truck driver Pedro Blanco, 36, of Lakeland, and HART bus driver, Twila Smith, 49, of Tampa, were not injured.
After the vehicles came to a halt, a tow truck had to haul the crane off the cruiser.
"This car looks like it hit an IED (improvised explosive device)," McKinnon said. "This deputy, you know, by a miracle or the grace of God was sitting in that one compartment, and fortunately nobody else was in that car. Otherwise it would have certainly been a fatality."
A close friend of Walker's, Detective Jason Connell, visited her in the hospital later on Thursday. Connell said she remained in the intensive care unit with broken ribs and a "real nasty laceration on her arm" and was coming in and out of consciousness, but "she's doing pretty good."
Connell said Walker's family members, including a son in his 20s, were at her side.
"I didn't want to get in the way, so I just leaned over, and she opened her eyes," Connell said. "I said, 'I got this. I got you,' and she winked at me."
Walker has been a mentor to Connell since he arrived at the Sheriff's Office in 1995, he said.
As doctors tended to Walker, investigators scoured the closed intersection for hours.
Cautioning that the assessment was preliminary, the Sheriff's Office first said the crane's brakes seemed to have failed. But apparent at the scene was a mattress in the undercarriage of the crane.
McKinnon said deputies were investigating whether the mattress could have interfered with the driver's ability to stop.
The crane, made by Connecticut-based Terex Corp., bears the logo of Anthony Crane Rental. Calls to Anthony were not returned. Mike Bazinet, a Terex spokesman, said the company would cooperate with investigators, but he couldn't comment publicly about the crash.
"I don't think it would be appropriate for us to go into engineering specifications on that crane," he said.
Nichole Simmon, 30, who works at the Denny's on Hillsborough, was on the phone outside when she heard skidding and slamming.
First she ran to Deputy Walker's destroyed cruiser.
"I looked in and didn't see any movement," Simmon said.
Simmon said the deputy, with a bloody arm, was slumped over on the middle console.
Next Simmon went to the blue Honda CRV, flipped on its side. The driver was talking. People asked if he was okay, and he said yes.
All around her, others had also stopped to help.
"There were just so many people, right off the bat," she said.
After she returned to work, she marveled at what she had seen.
So did Abrahim Ghobrial, 48, who owns the nearby BP.
He didn't see the initial impact, but he heard it. His customers raced outside, calling 911 along the way.
"Sometimes we have accidents, but not like this," Ghobrial said. "I hope the cop's okay. . . . It's so sad."
Within hours, the Sheriff's Office assured the public that Walker would likely survive.
The deputy had narrowly escaped danger on duty before.
About seven years ago, Walker was almost stabbed with a steak knife during a struggle with a suicidal man in Lutz, according to Times archives.
Two teenage boys saw the encounter and pulled the man away. They were later given the Sheriff's Civilian Award.
Kim Wilmath can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2442.