LARGO — Family members of a man seriously injured last month when his motorcycle hit a ladder on U.S. 19 are asking the public to come forward with any information about how the ladder ended up in the road.
Andrew Guastella, 61, was headed to a doctor's appointment at Bay Pines VA Hospital in St. Petersburg from his home in Holiday when the accident happened at 8:40 a.m. on April 8.
He was southbound on U.S. 19 near 142nd Avenue when a 24-foot Werner aluminum ladder "came out of nowhere," witnesses to the accident told police.
"There were vehicles on either side of him, so there was nowhere for him to go," said Kelly Conard, the companion of Guastella's son, Andrew Jr.
The ladder apparently fell off a southbound vehicle and landed in the center lane, though it's unclear when it was dropped. No one has come forward to claim it, and no witnesses reported seeing it fall into the road, Largo police said.
Though he was wearing a helmet, Guastella suffered head injuries when he struck the ladder and his motorcycle flipped. He rolled, then slid along the roadway, landing 250 feet from the point of impact, Largo police said.
"He's still not out of the woods. He's got some bleeding on the brain," Conard said.
The accident highlights the danger faced by motorists because of road debris, said Largo police traffic homicide investigator Keith Snyder.
A 2004 study commissioned by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety estimated that road debris causes more than 25,000 crashes a year and 80 to 90 fatalities nationwide — 0.2 percent of all fatal accidents.
But the actual number of accidents involving road debris may be higher, the study acknowledges, because various jurisdictions use different methods for collecting data and recording accident causes. In 2007, California authorities said that 155 people had been killed over a two-year period in accidents involving objects on highways in that state alone.
Road debris hazards
Fatal accidents involving road debris can involve drivers who lose control when they swerve to avoid colliding with an object, drivers who crash after hitting something in the road or drivers or passengers who are hit by pieces of flying debris.
There have been some high-profile accidents in Florida involving road debris.
In 1998, a 30-inch metal rod flew through the windshield of the van a 13-year-old girl was riding in on I-95 in Fort Lauderdale. The rod pierced her chest, missing her heart by an inch.
In the Tampa Bay area, a 54-year-old man was killed in 1994 when a 20-pound piece of a semitrailer truck brake drum came crashing through his windshield and hit him in the head.
In 2000, a 33-year-old woman suffered brain damage after she was hit in the face by a piece of metal that came through her windshield as she drove on I-275 in Tampa.
In Guastella's case, the severity of his injuries was likely exacerbated because he was on a motorcycle, Snyder said.
"If it was a car, you might have had some damage, but because it's a motorcycle, it increases the damage tenfold," Snyder said.
Two people witnessed the accident, but didn't see where the ladder came from, Snyder said. Conard said her family is hoping someone will remember seeing the ladder fall onto the road and can provide a description of the vehicle. They are offering a reward to anyone who can help police identify the person who lost the ladder.
"Sometimes citizens help more than anybody," she said.
In the meantime, Guastella remains in serious condition at Bayfront Medical Center nearly a month after the crash.
Rita Farlow can be reached at (727) 445-4157 or firstname.lastname@example.org.