LAND O'LAKES — The inmates sat in the rear of the military truck headed down U.S. 41, back to the jail.
Rain pounded the tarp over their heads, held in place by a frame of metal bars. They sat on benches; no seat belts, handcuffs or shackles.
"If this thing rolls, we're all going to die," Damian Duval said he told the other inmates, who joked about it and said, if they did crash and live, they would sue the Pasco County Sheriff's Office.
Ten minutes later, about 2 p.m. Tuesday, traffic on U.S. 41 slowed and the deputy driving the truck braked. According to the Florida Highway Patrol, the truck slid on the wet road and flipped. The five inmates in the back of the truck were ejected. Deputy David Phaneuf, 50, and an inmate riding in the front cab with him were also injured.
All seven men were taken to local hospitals.
As of Thursday, four inmates and the deputy had been treated and released. John F. Pelcher, 29, an inmate from New Port Richey, was still in the hospital with serious injuries. Crash survivors interviewed at the jail Thursday said James McMillion, 28, of Spring Hill had been transferred from the hospital to the medical wing of the jail.
Duval, 27, of Hudson, said he and other inmates felt uneasy about riding in the back of the truck, which the Sheriff's Office bought last year. The truck is called a "deuce and a half" because it can carry 2 1/2 tons of cargo and is often used by the military to transport troops.
"This is negligence," said Duval, who said he has neck and back pain from the crash. He is finishing a stint in the jail for vehicular homicide for the 2006 crash that killed his friend and passenger, George McBurney. Duval said he is supposed to be released Sunday.
"It's a military vehicle not made for highway use," he said of the truck. "It's asinine."
Ryan Hayes, 22, remembers the truck braking, and then he woke up on the grass. He also said he is sore and it's difficult for him to move his left arm.
"I never thought it was safe in the first place," Hayes said.
The inmates were all "trusties," low-risk inmates who are given the option to do work duty to reduce their sentences. That day, the inmates said, they left the jail at 6:30 a.m. to work at a county water treatment plant at 6003 Parkway Blvd. in Land O'Lakes. Sheriff's spokesman Kevin Doll said they pressure-washed the building, walkways and handrails and raked the grounds.
Instead of taking a short southwest jog on Ehren Cutoff to catch U.S. 41 north back to the jail, Phaneuf took a longer route: northeast on Ehren Cutoff, west on State Road 52, then south on U.S. 41. Doll said Phaneuf decided that route would be quicker and safer, considering the school traffic at that hour from Land O'Lakes High School and construction on U.S. 41 south of the jail.
Hayes said he still chose to ride in the truck, even though he didn't feel it was safe, because he wanted to work and reduce his sentence. He's serving nine months for violating probation and is supposed to be released April 3.
"I hope to get out sooner than that," he said.
If inmates felt anxious about their safety, Doll said, "they didn't have to" ride in the transport.
"They all signed waivers," he said. "They didn't have to be trusties."
Doll said the Sheriff's Office would not have transported inmates in a vehicle that was not safe.
"Those types of trucks transport military troops all over the world in terrain and conditions worse than U.S. 41," he said.
The Florida Highway Patrol continues to investigate the accident. Doll said when the report is completed, the Sheriff's Office will launch an internal review of the crash.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6229.