DARBY — Joe McDonnell was an infantryman for the U.S. Army and served in the National Guard.
He's pitched in for disaster efforts after hurricanes Opal and Andrew.
But in his nine years in the military, he saw nothing like the gruesome scene he and his 9-year-old son encountered on their way home Saturday night after a Boy Scout camping trip in Trilby.
"Nothing compares to what I saw," said McDonnell, 39, of Land O'Lakes.
"It was one of the worst things I've seen."
McDonnell and his son, Joe, planned to take a leisurely drive home under a moonlit sky when they saw a slew of cars with their brake lights on about a quarter-mile ahead.
McDonnell, heading west on State Road 52 just past Bellamy Brothers Boulevard, thought the accident ahead on the dark two-lane road wouldn't be too bad.
"Then I saw flames shoot up," McDonnell said Monday. "It was in the middle of the road. I just saw fire."
A Dodge pickup and a Lincoln Town Car carrying a two adults and three children had collided head-on just before 10:30 p.m. McDonnell pulled over on the right shoulder, told his son to stay in the truck and grabbed a first aid kit.
He ran about 150 yards and found the source of the blaze: the empty pickup was in flames, spread across both lanes of the road. Nearby, he said, the Lincoln Town Car was crumpled like tinfoil.
McDonnell noticed an injured man — the ejected truck driver — lying about 10 feet from the pickup. Another motorist was standing with him.
"I look up at the flames spreading from the engine to the cab," McDonnell said. "I said, 'The tank is going to blow. We've got to get out of here. We need to move him now or we are all in a world of hurt when that tank goes.' "
Someone else had the same concern: McDonnell saw another car dragging the damaged Town Car off the road with a tow strip. Inside the car, two trapped girls were screaming. About five people were working desperately to get the girls out.
"They were crawling over the car like ants, trying to rip the doors off," he said.
McDonnell focused on the injured truck driver. The man was bloody and screaming in agony as McDonnell and two other people carefully moved him away from the blaze.
"His feet were shorn off, hanging by skin and muscle," McDonnell said.
Then McDonnell heard a loud thud. About 60 feet away, the gas tank in the pickup exploded.
McDonnell sent word for his son to bring the canteens from their truck. The boy couldn't find them, but came back with a 5-gallon water jug from the camping trip.
"I used the water to wash the blood off (the truck driver's) face with some 4-by-4 bandages," said McDonnell, who sent his son away from the scene. "When I did that, I saw that his chin was split open."
The man was writhing in pain. McDonnell found the man's name by pulling his ID from his pocket, and began talking to him with another woman at the scene.
The Florida Highway Patrol identified that driver as David Drake, 21, of Zephyrhills.
"We tell him he's going to be okay, and we told him to hold our hands," McDonnell said. "We said, 'Stick with us, David.' "
Pasco Fire Rescue officials arrived at the scene 11 minutes after the crash and found several motorists had stopped to help, said Assistant Chief Mike Ciccarello.
"There was an off-duty EMT on scene, and an off-duty Pasco firefighter on scene," he said. "I'm sure he was helpful. It was a pretty bad wreck."
The collision killed the 32-year-old driver of the 1991 Lincoln Town Car, whose name has been withheld by FHP pending notification of next of kin. The front passenger of the Lincoln, Tiffany Simmons, 21, of Dade City was seriously injured, but her condition was upgraded Monday to stable, said Sgt. Larry Kraus, highway patrol spokesman.
Three people from Port Richey — one of them a 7-year-old child whose name is listed as Soleman on an FHP report — were critically injured. Also injured were two children, listed only as Isabella and Tiffany. No ages were provided.
All were taken to St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa.
Drake, the truck driver who was not wearing a seat belt, was taken to Tampa General Hospital and listed in critical condition.
His passenger, Christine Clinton of Dade City, was listed in serious condition on Monday, Kraus said. Clinton, 19, was wearing a seat belt.
The FHP is still investigating the accident and has not cited anyone.
"We're still finding out information from passengers," Kraus said Monday. "It was one of those weird crashes."
McDonnell, his wife and son are hoping the best for those still hospitalized after the crash.
He kept one thought in mind as he helped the injured truck driver:
"It's the middle of the road at night," McDonnell said. "The best I can do is let him know he wasn't alone."
Camille C. Spencer can be reached at (813) 909-4609 or [email protected]