Saturday, June 23, 2018
Public safety

'Gator! Gator! Gator!' Reptile and cars collide on I-275

ST. PETERSBURG — The Toyota Scion was so new it didn't have any dings in its maroon paint. Its oil hadn't even been changed yet.

On the drive home along Interstate 275, heading north at 70 mph, the Scion suffered its first blemish in an unusual way.

"Gator! Gator! Gator!" Esther Foley shouted about 12:30 Sunday morning while riding shotgun.

Up ahead, near the Gandy Boulevard exit, an old truck walloped the tip of the alligator's tail.

Legs extended, mouth open and signature teeth bared, the gator bolted — right into the passenger side of the 2012 Scion.

"Like a battering ram," said 41-year-old driver Bruce Foley.

Esther Foley, 33, had to remind her shocked husband to pull over. There was no way the insurance company would believe this without a report, the Temple Terrace couple figured.

Deer and cars collide all the time. But how often does a car get T-boned by a 12-foot alligator crossing an interstate?

It's far more common to hear of alligators enjoying backyard pools, but Tampa Bay-area authorities say they field calls for the reptiles on roads — some of them heavily traveled — several times a year. A few months ago in Largo, a 10-foot alligator got stuck under a car that had rolled over it in traffic.

On this night, car and gator would meet again.

In the rearview mirror of the scuffed and dented Scion, Bruce Foley watched another car collide with the alligator — longer than the width of the lane — as it scrambled off the pavement.

"What's going to happen," he wondered, "when it goes the rest of the way across the median?"

About half an hour later, headlights heading south on the interstate hit a silhouette.

Verna Christopherson, 79, and son Mark were driving home to St. Petersburg, a few bucks richer after a night on the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino slot machines.

By the time they spotted the alligator in front of them on the highway, it was too late.

The car ran over it and launched several feet into the air.

The gator went flying, too.

"He was real fat," said Mark Christopherson, 56.

The 12-foot gator could have weighed up to 1,000 pounds, estimates Seminole trapper Vernon Yates, who had not been called out on this incident. Likely coming from the adjacent Sawgrass Lake, the alligator might have been a little scrawnier. The reptile was probably an older male that may have been wandering in search of a mate, he said.

The slow-moving creature would have needed to rest often to make it across two directions of multilane interstate traffic.

Verna Christopherson "kept it pretty cool" while driving, her son said, but he wouldn't let her get out after they stopped on the side of the road. He scraped a brown ridged scale off the underside of the car.

After wreaking $2,000 in damage to the northbound vehicle it encountered, the alligator left minimal marks on the Christophersons' car.

It caused no injuries.

But the last leg of the dangerous journey proved fatal for the alligator, which died on the side of the road.

Stephanie Wang can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2443.

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