Tuesday, September 25, 2018
Public safety

Man who pulled family from burning minivan thinks racing led to deadly Tampa crash (w/video)

TAMPA — Before Gregory Hawkins helped pull a family from a burning vehicle in a crash that claimed the lives of five people, he pulled out his cellphone.

He was startled by the scene he came upon Oct. 26 along E Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard — a white minivan crushed and smoking, a blue Volkswagen crumpled.

Hawkins had seen the Volkswagen just minutes before, he said, speeding by him east of U.S. 301 in the company of a black car and a pair of motorcycles.

"I figured they were racing," said Hawkins, 49. "I didn't think no more of it."

Florida Highway Patrol investigators have a different explanation — for now.

The Volkswagen's driver, 22-year-old Pablo Cortes, was indeed driving at speeds well beyond the posted 50 mph limit, investigators said, and they left the door open for racing — but they said they have found no evidence of it.

"What I know about this kid, is he was driving like a race car driver and I don't put anything past him," said Sgt. Steve Gaskins.

Witnesses who saw the cars collide noticed no other vehicles in the vicinity at the time, Gaskins said. Troopers are still investigating why Cortes lost control of the car before he hit the minivan nearly head-on.

Still, Hawkins said Tuesday, they never interviewed him.

Informed about Hawkins' account by the Tampa Bay Times, Gaskins said the highway patrol will seek him out.

"There's other things we're looking at," he said. "These things take time, as they should."

Anyone else with information can reach Gaskins via email at [email protected]

Hawkins was dropping off a friend at his apartment Wednesday when he saw the two cars speeding by. He pulled into his friend's complex, Mariner's Cove, spending about a minute in the parking lot, then drove back onto Dr. Martin Luther King Boulevard and quickly came across the wreckage.

Videos that have surfaced on social media help fill in some pieces of what led up to the fiery crash. A SnapChat video showed Cortes' passenger recording with help from a speed filter as he was tearing down the road at 115 mph.

Troopers said the video was filmed at 9:38 p.m. Hawkins said his video of the crash scene was recorded six minutes later, at 9:44.

"You got a situation, a beautiful family that's lost loved ones, and you look at the situation, and oh my God, they weren't doing 115 mph for nothing," Hawkins said. "Something else is involved."

READ MORE: SnapChat video appears to show driver going 115 mph

When Hawkins pulled out his camera phone at the scene of the crash, he said, he captured the same black car he saw speeding alongside the blue Volkswagen. His video shows a man peering into the wreckage of the blue Volkswagen and yell, "Pablo."

Another man grabs his head in both hands and cries out, "Oh my (expletive) God."

The two men appear to notice that the wreckage of the white Toyota Sienna minivan is on fire, with "people inside."

The video shows the black car speeding away from the scene with the men inside.

Cortes was later pronounced dead there, as was his passenger — 19-year-old Jolie Bartolome.

At a vigil on Friday night for all the crash's victims, 32-year-old Anthony Creelman said he hoped his car community learned from what happened. He knew Cortes.

"I don't want to lose anymore friends," Creelman said. "I don't want to see innocent people go anymore. I want people to see this (incident) for what it is and what it is, is something to learn from."

Hawkins' phone died after he recorded the 43 second video. Soon, he said, he was helping deputies smash open a window in the minivan.

"I looked in there, and there were kids," Hawkins said. "I dove in the window, I got the little boy out first."

Three occupants of the minivan died at the scene — John Bernal, 9, his sister Maria Bernal, 10, and the driver, their mother, 39-year-old Marianela Murillo.

BACKSTORY:MLK crash kills five, including two Tampa children ages 9 and 10

Another daughter, Lina Bernal, 18, and a 15-year-old niece Luisa Louisa, who was visiting on vacation from Colombia, were taken to Tampa General Hospital with critical injuries.

In the last statement the family gave a reporter, a cousin said the girls were stable but not alert.

The Volkswagen also hit a Toyota Scion. It driver, Carla Marie Wyman, 54, suffered serious injuries.

In several posts to Facebook, the Murillo and Bernal families call Hawkins their "angel" for saving the girls. He visited the hospital. He gets texts from the family inviting him to come back any time.

People from Colombia and around the world have been reaching out to him to thank him for his heroism.

"They're wonderful people and they've shown me a lot of love," he said. "Everyone is showing one thing: universal love."

Contact Sara DiNatale at [email protected] Follow @sara_dinatale.

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