SAFETY HARBOR — It was in the brief lull before the fireworks finale that Richard Smeraldo, gazing at a momentarily clear night sky, was visited by the inexplicable sensation he had been smashed in the nose with a baseball bat.
The 74-year-old Smeraldo was watching the July Fourth exhibition at the Safety Harbor Marina on Bayshore Boulevard with his wife and friends. He was sitting in a camp chair gazing up when a bullet fell out of the sky.
It clipped through the bill of his hat, struck the bridge of his nose, exited his nostril and bored a path from his lower lip through the fleshy nub of his chin. Exiting his lower jaw, it struck his rectangular silver medallion necklace inscribed with a favorite Bible verse of his mother's: If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed . . . nothing shall be impossible to you.
Smeraldo managed to come out of his encounter with the bullet in improbably good shape. After his face was stitched up at Mease Countryside Hospital, he looked as though he might have only taken a bad forward fall. Pinellas sheriff's deputies collected the slug for analysis to determine what kind of gun it came from and were still trying to figure out Thursday who might have fired the bullet that came down on Smeraldo.
"It's sort of a miracle when you think about things like this," he said at his Clearwater home Thursday. "It's a brush with death, in a way. If my head was moved an inch …"
Smeraldo's close call revived concerns about one of the Tampa Bay area's more intractable public safety problems: a gun fired into the air by somebody who doesn't know or care where the bullet will come down. It is a truly blind act of random violence.
People already know what could have come to pass if Smeraldo's head had been moved forward an inch. It happened to Diego Duran, a 13-year-old from Ruskin.
Duran was hit in the head by a falling bullet while he watched fireworks at his family's home New Year's Eve. The person who fired the bullet was never found.
The brain damage it caused rendered him unable to remember his mom's name, at first. After multiple surgeries, he has made progress but still has intermittent trouble with short-term memory, according to Sandy Duran, his mother. He also has lost his sense of smell.
As her son works to get back on track for the next school year, Sandy Duran has launched a public awareness campaign called Bullet Free Sky.
"It's great that it wasn't much more serious," Duran said of the incident Wednesday night in Safety Harbor. "But I don't think the whole issue of celebratory gunfire should be taken any less seriously."
There are others who were luckier than either Diego Duran or Smeraldo. A police chief from the Florida Panhandle was struck and bruised in the leg by a bullet that fell through the roof of Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg last month. After New Year's Eve, others in the bay area reported bullets falling dangerously near them — piercing a hat in one case, hitting a handbag in another — without injuring them.
Authorities aren't rushing to remedy the problem.
Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said he doesn't consider preventing celebratory gunfire a major priority for the Sheriff's Office, since he's aware of only two incidents of falling bullets hitting people — at Safety Harbor and Tropicana Field — this year.
Common sense, he points out, isn't easy for the law to enforce.
"It's one of those things that's pretty tough to prevent, other than to plead for discretion and good judgment," Gualtieri said.
In Miami, a public awareness campaign against celebratory gunfire that included a press conference in the run-up to Independence Day and ads throughout the city featuring the rapper Pitbull seems to have paid dividends. Miami police Sgt. Freddie Cruz said nobody was injured by falling bullets Wednesday or Thursday.
Duran said she'd like to see more than just education. Stricter regulation of the purchase of ammunition could help insure that those who obtain guns illegally don't have easy access to bullets, she said.
Joe Krawtschenko, a firearms instructor from Bradenton who is working with Duran on the Bullet Free Sky initiative, said the state should also require more rigorous safety training for those who obtain concealed-weapon permits.
"You have a ton of people out there with guns who have no idea how to use them," Krawtschenko said.
State Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, was fretting about celebratory gunfire all night on July Fourth because of the Duran incident earlier this year.
"I just wanted to get into the comfort of my home and feel safe, and even there, I was thinking about falling bullets," she said.
Joyner said she would support a public education campaign carried out by government agencies at both the state and local level. But she suspects any proposals for a legislative solution to bullets fired into the sky would face swift and fierce opposition from gun-rights activists and interest groups such as the National Rifle Association.
"I just don't know whether or not that's a fight I'd like to take on," she said. "You're talking about one of the biggest holidays in this country. The custom, the tradition, is you shoot your gun. You can talk about ways (to stop it), but at this point I don't think there would be any way to pass legislation."
Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.