RIDGE MANOR WEST — Heading south on Interstate 75 in the predawn darkness Monday, Aubrey Pinion felt like he had the highway to himself.
It was just before 5 a.m., and Pinion had planned to spend the morning helping a friend paint his home. If they started early enough, he figured, they could avoid the insufferable afternoon heat.
"I was just driving along in silence," Pinion said, "about a half-mile away from the exit."
But he never made it.
According to the Florida Highway Patrol, a semitrailer truck rear-ended Pinion's 1995 Dodge van just south of State Road 50, sending the van into the guardrail and causing the semi to overturn and catch fire. The southbound lanes were closed for about four hours.
The truck driver, who has not been identified, was killed in the crash.
Pinion, 55, suffered only minor injuries in the collision. Later in the morning, he was pacing around the front yard of his home with a slight hitch in his step.
"I'm still in a bit of a daze," Pinion said. "I had an old back injury that got messed up a bit. But I'm really shook up that the guy died."
Based on preliminary information, FHP said the semi was heading south on I-75 directly behind Pinion's van in the right lane about 4:45 a.m. For unknown reasons, the driver of the truck failed to slow down and ran into the right rear end of Pinion's van.
The van was pushed into the guardrail on the east shoulder of the southbound lane of I-75, while the truck overturned and slid in the same lane. The semi came to rest on its left side, with its cab on fire and the trailer blocking the highway's southbound lanes.
Pinion said once his van came to a stop, he quickly put the vehicle into reverse in case the truck's burning cab exploded. He drove backward about 100 yards and raced over to the truck, hoping to pull the driver from the wreck.
But the fire kept Pinion away.
"I just couldn't get to him," Pinion said. "But a firefighter told me he had a pretty bad gash over his head, and that maybe he died in the crash. So, that's some consolation."
FHP spokesman Sgt. Larry Kraus said the driver likely will not be identified until the Medical Examiner's Office performs an autopsy.
David Nelson, safety director of Wiley Sanders Truck Lines Inc., which owned the trailer hitched to the cab, declined to release any information about the driver or his truck company.
Later Monday morning at his home in the Ridge Manor area, Pinion and a friend were working to pry open one of the rear doors of the van, which had been smashed in during the collision. Pinion was still trying to come to grips with the grisly scene that unfolded only hours earlier.
"It really shook me up," he said. "Another foot one way or another, I could be dead or (the driver) could be alive."
Joel Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 754-6120.