TAMPA — Officials are investigating the death of an Adventure Island employee struck by lightning Saturday morning.
The employee, Justin Inversso of Dade City, was the 21-year-old son of Pasco County Sheriff's Office Bailiff Frank Inversso. Late Saturday, the Sheriff's Office issued a statement expressing "great sadness" upon learning of Justin Inversso's death.
"Justin showed great promise as a young man and he cared a great deal about the safety of others," Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco said. "His actions not only to save the lives of the people in the park but his entire life demonstrated that he is and will always be a hero.
"His strong faith led him to live a courageous life of service. There is no question he is in the comfort of our Lord looking down on us."
At the time of the lightning strike, Inversso had been working at Key West Rapids water slide. He was a lifeguard supervisor at the park. The water park, located at 10001 N McKinley Drive near Busch Gardens, monitors inclement weather with real-time radar, lightning detection and a park manager whose responsibilities include physical monitoring of weather conditions, a park spokeswoman said Saturday. It is unclear if the water slide was closing when Inversso was struck.
The monitoring system has been in place since the park's opening in 1980.
"Nothing is more important to us than the safety of our employees and guests," said Jim Dean, park president for Busch Gardens and Adventure Island. "This is the first incident of its kind at the park."
Inversso was reported to be standing in 2 to 3 feet of water when the lightning struck at about 11:45 a.m., according to Tampa Fire Rescue. Key West Rapids — a six-story, 700-foot slide — has entry pools at the top and bottom where employees help guests on and off the ride. The entry pool at the top is 1 1/2 feet deep. It was unclear Saturday which entrance Inversso manned.
After the incident, the water park's employees removed Inversso from the water and began performing CPR. Fire units arrived at the park within four minutes. Paramedics continued resuscitation efforts as they transported him to University Community Hospital, Fire Rescue said. He was pronounced dead at the hospital.
A storm was moving through the area and out into Tampa Bay during the strike, according to the National Weather Service.
"There were several isolated lightning strikes in that area at that time," said Jennifer McNatt, a meteorologist with the Weather Service. The front dissipated and others rolled in behind it, she said.
Dean, the park's president, said the tower at the water slide may have taken the lightning strike.
"Being near tall objects during a lightning strike is dangerous because lightning is attracted to tall objects," McNatt explained. "On top of a water slide is definitely a dangerous place to be when it's lightning."
The Key West Rapids slide closed after the incident, but the park remained open for business, park spokeswoman Jill Revelle said. Park officials have not decided if the slide will reopen today.
Robbyn Mitchell can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3373.