GIBSONTON — Evelia Rojas thought it was a blown tire that caused a dump truck hauling a load of sand to lose control Tuesday morning and slide off U.S. 41 into the Alafia River.
Rojas, 19, saw the accident unfold from the driver's seat of her Dodge pickup truck as she turned onto the highway from Pennsylvania Avenue.
"Right when he passed me, I heard his tire pop," she said. "It sounded like a gunshot."
The crash sent 32-year-old Miguel Del Toro to the hospital with minor injuries, officials said. But if not for Rojas and others who saw the truck plow into the water, he might well have drowned in the rising river'.
It happened about 9:30 a.m. as Del Toro headed north on U.S. 41 just south of the bridge over the Alafia River. When he lost control, the truck veered across the southbound lanes. Near the shoreline, the truck smashed into a pile of rocks and rolled onto its driver's side before coming to rest in the water.
Rojas, who was headed to purchase auto parts for her father's cement business, pulled over and ran to help. She inched out along a metal pole that jutted over the surface and crawled onto the truck's passenger side. Peering through the window, she saw Del Toro pinned by wreckage from the smashed front end. He stood against the submerged driver's side door, the water line at his chest.
She spoke to him in Spanish, asking if he was okay. Having gone through training to become a patient care technician, Rojas said she knew enough to keep him calm.
"He told me he could feel his legs and arms," she said. "I wasn't able to do much. They needed a heavy machine to cut the truck open and pull him out."
Firefighters and deputies with the Hillsborough County sheriff's marine unit arrived quickly. It took about 20 minutes for them to pry Del Toro from the truck, Rojas said. By the time they did, the water was up to his neck.
He was taken to Tampa General Hospital with what officials said were minor injuries. Del Toro emerged from the hospital Tuesday afternoon clad in medical scrubs and bearing just a few cuts and scrapes on his hands, arms and legs. In a waterfront park west of the hospital, he sat on a bench before a bank of TV cameras with his wife, Miqueili Tamayo, at his side. He recounted the crash in a subdued tone as Tamayo, 27, translated from Spanish.
He said he was headed to a construction site on Lois Avenue in Tampa, hauling dirt for Skanska, the company that hired him a month ago, when his tire blew. The steering wheel rocked in his hands as he tried to regain control. When the truck hit the water, he thought he was going to die.
"The water was at his chest," Tamayo said. "He was scared it was going to go all the way up."
He was calmed only when Rojas arrived, he said.
"When she was talking to him, she made it so he didn't feel lonely or more worried," Tamayo said. "He knew someone was going to call 911."