Tuesday, July 17, 2018
Public safety

Town 'N Country man helping with Irma cleanup dies in chain saw accident

TAMPA — Rodrigo Martinez knelt before a hole in the black, weed-choked earth. A heavy log lay near him, freshly severed from the towering branches. He cradled the burly wood, its bark stained with droplets of red.

"Brother, I'm with you," he said. "You know that. Your blood is my blood."

He placed the log in the hole, dug at the exact place where, a day earlier, his friend Wilfredo Hernandez came to rest after firefighters lowered his body from the tree.

Hernandez became the only known local casualty of Hurricane Irma, but not until after the storm wreaked havoc on Tampa Bay.

The 55-year-old construction worker was helping Martinez, a close friend and neighbor on their Town 'N Country street, trim the tangled branches that swayed through power cables in his back yard.

Hernandez stood high atop the tree late Monday afternoon. Martinez and neighbors in an adjacent yard watched as he pressed a chain saw into the wood.

The blade became stuck in a branch, they later told Hillsborough sheriff's deputies. As Hernandez pulled, the chain saw kicked back and tore into his neck, cutting through his jugular vein and carotid artery, according to a medical examiner report.

Firefighters and deputies arrived at the home at 5115 Town 'N Country Blvd. and used a harness to lower him. He was dead.

On Tuesday afternoon, Martinez stood with two other men, sweating in the hot sun, amid shrubs and grass and tangled vines.

He held up a knotted stick — two small branches marked with blood forking off a larger severed piece, and thin vine jutting out from the end. He tugged the vine with his fingers.

"This is what killed him," he said, "this little piece right here."

He and Hernandez had been friends for several years, he said. They lived in the working-class, mostly Hispanic neighborhood northwest of the city, where residents looked out for one other.

They boarded up when the storm approached. When it was over, they thought they had escaped unscathed. Some saw the accident as it happened. Others had heard about it. Few wanted to talk about it. Hernandez was a father of three adult children who live in Cuba.

The authorities carried away his body, but there were bloody reminders everywhere Tuesday.

With spare words exchanged in Spanish, Martinez and another man, Sergio Rodriguez, dug the hole near the base of the tree.

"We're going to take it down," Martinez said, "And bury him where he fell."

Rodriguez ascended a ladder against the tree trunk. He stepped high to the place where Hernandez had fallen.

He used a handheld blade to saw. Wood dust rained down past a white fence that was stained with red.

Rodriguez put the saw aside and grabbed a machete that had been placed in the wood. He raised the blade and swung, striking the branch again and again.

Thwack-thwack-thwack.

Martinez noted the date his friend had died — Sept. 11. He said he used to work in New York and knew many who perished that day 16 years ago.

"What do you call that?" he said. "Coincidence? Destiny?"

The log dangled, then fell.

Rodriguez picked up a shovel and stabbed at the wood.

The men gathered the fallen branches and foliage and filled the hole. They ran a garden hose from next door.

Martinez sprayed the cool running water. The red spots dissolved and trickled to the ground, flowing over mud and into the hole. He removed his white T-shirt and used it to wipe a fence.

He stopped, and he sobbed.

 
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