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Semitrailer truck hauling bulldozer plunges off Alafia River bridge

TAMPA — The driver's probably dead.

John Fragomeni thought that Friday as he stood at the edge of Alafia River bridge and looked at the wreckage scattered across the thick grass and muck below. The semitrailer truck's white cab — crumpled, streaked with blood and mud — had landed almost upright. The bulldozer from the truck's trailer was upside-down. Axles and tires sat a few yards away. It was as if someone had taken the truck apart, piece by piece, and then tossed it all onto the marshland.

Minutes before, about 12:30 p.m., Fragomeni was a few cars behind on Interstate 75 south in Riverview when the semitrailer truck, pulling the bulldozer, started leaking thick, gray smoke. It was so smoky Fragomeni couldn't see as the truck lurched left, slammed into the wall, then flipped over it, plunging about 45 feet.

Fragomeni, 24, of Lithia is a reserve firefighter/EMT with Hillsborough County Fire Rescue. His day job is lawn care. He and two co-workers were headed to a job in Apollo Beach when they pulled over.

Hillsborough County sheriff's Deputy Philip Merkle also stopped. He and Fragomeni were discussing how rescue personnel could reach the truck's cab when a head peeked from the window. The driver — Jeffery Scott Cook, 29, of St. Augustine — was still alive.

"Help is on the way!" Fragomeni and Merkle shouted. "Stay right there!"

Fragomeni and Merkle slid down a concrete embankment and trudged through about 200 feet of thick mud and grass, Fragomeni said, slipping in up to their waists at points. Once they reached Cook, they had another problem: how to get the seriously injured man back out.

The answer was provided by another passer-by, a boater who had been fishing. The man, whose name was not released, maneuvered as close as he could get — about 100 yards away. Despite his injuries, Cook could walk. One of Fragomeni's co-workers went ahead, trotting out a path along shallow mud.

Cook asked the men to call his wife and tell her what happened, Fragomeni said, and to call his employers — MD Towing of Jacksonville. Then he explained the crash.

"He felt like the truck just came disconnected as he was driving," Fragomeni said. "The next thing he knew, he was in marshland."

A "mechanical failure centering around the steering controls and front axle" caused the accident, the Florida Highway Patrol said. A representative of MD Towing confirmed Cook works there but declined further comment.

The boater took the men to nearby Dixie's Dockside Waterfront Pub, where an ambulance picked up Cook. He was in serious but stable condition at Tampa General Hospital on Friday night, according to the Florida Highway Patrol. The inside southbound lane of I-75 was closed for about four hours as authorities removed the wreckage.

The men said goodbye at Dixie's. Cook was thankful, Fragomeni said, and concerned about the bulldozer that would not reach its destination.

"I told him to stop worrying about work," Fragomeni said. "We're just glad you're alive."

Then Fragomeni made a call, to the customer in Apollo Beach expecting lawn service. Fragomeni and his co-workers were coated in mud.

"I didn't tell them why," he said later. "I just told them we probably weren't going to make it."

Times reporter Laura C. Morel and researcher John Martin contributed to this story. Will Hobson can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or whobson@tampabay.com.

Semitrailer truck hauling bulldozer plunges off Alafia River bridge 06/14/13 [Last modified: Friday, June 14, 2013 11:10pm]
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