ST. PETERSBURG — A man drove erratically over eight blocks of Central Avenue on Tuesday afternoon, smashing into cars and taking down a lamppost.
The eastbound driver of an Artistic Pools van veered across two lanes of oncoming traffic before smashing into a tree in the 5000 block of Central, where flames from the engine spread quickly.
He was then rescued by two bystanders, who cut the man's seat belt and pulled him from the van seconds before it was consumed by fire.
Police identified the driver late Tuesday as Kevin Ronald Reed, 46, of Oldsmar. He was taken to Bayfront Health St. Petersburg with burns over 30 percent of his body, then was airlifted to Tampa General Hospital.
Police said Reed's erratic driving was likely the result of a medical episode.
"It appears he was a diabetic going into a diabetic response," said St. Petersburg police spokesman Mike Puetz.
One other person was treated at the scene for minor injuries.
Matt Romens, a 27-year-old loan officer, saw the fiery crash.
About 1:35 p.m., Romens was pulling out of the parking lot of Nations Lending Corp., 5047 Central Ave., and was about to make a left turn to meet up with his buddies for lunch.
When he looked west, Romens said, "I saw his car coming eastbound. He was kind of swerving all over the road."
Romens didn't know it, but the van had already been involved in a string of crashes within the previous minute. At the 5800 block, the van had run into the rear of a woman's Lincoln — causing her car to catch on fire — and collided with a second vehicle.
It then took out a light pole at 52nd Street, which bounced off the van before shattering on the street. The driver continued eastward, wires from the pole trailing beneath it. At that point, authorities believe, it might have caught on fire. The van then slammed into a tree on the northeast corner of Central and 51st Street.
Romens alerted his co-workers at Nations Lending to call 911. Moments later, he rushed to aid two men who were already pulling the driver out of the vehicle.
"They were yelling, 'You're on fire, roll around!' " Romens said. When the fire on the man was out, the men pulled the driver farther away from the van.
"At that point, the whole car was completely ablaze," Romens said. "Within 30 seconds, the whole thing was engulfed."
Someone noted that the van belonged to a pool cleaner and likely contained chemicals. The men carried the driver still farther away.
Loud noises erupted from the rear of the van. "It sounded like shotgun shells going off," said Jack May, 28, a neighbor who had arrived to help. "Like a boom. There were two of them, and crackling or whatever."
Police did not release the names of the two bystanders who were the first to rescue the driver.
The men told Romens they were able to free the driver because one of them happened to be carrying a knife.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2248.