TAMPA — On Monday night, like every Monday, Jerry Hager took his two grandsons to their Boy Scout meeting. Hager, a longtime Scout leader, was helping the troop prepare for a Halloween event in Inverness this weekend.
On the way back home, an ambulance on the way to a call smashed into Hager's truck, pinning the 64-year-old man inside. Rescue crews had to pry the roof open to free him.
Hager died at St. Joseph's Hospital on Tuesday morning.
The grandsons were left with broken bones and stitches.
"They love their grandpa very much," said Mary Beth Tarantola, Hager's daughter and mother of 13-year-old Jamie and 11-year-old Joseph. "It's just not right."
Hager and the boys were heading west about 9:40 p.m. on Busch Boulevard in Hager's maroon Ford F-150 pickup. Traffic on the other side of the road had stopped at Ola Avenue, and the driver of an eastbound ambulance noticed too late.
Tampa Fire Rescue reported that the private emergency vehicle was on its way to a call, headed toward Interstate 275.
The driver, 28-year-old Justin McKenzie, hit the brakes and swerved over the double yellow lines into oncoming traffic.
"All indications are that he was trying to avoid a rear-end collision," said Tampa police spokeswoman Andrea Davis. "He took a chance that no one would be in the other lanes."
The ambulance smashed into Hager's truck.
Police initially said Hager's injuries were not life-threatening, but he died at the hospital about 7 a.m., Davis said.
It was a "terrible, unfortunate accident," Davis said, and there are no signs of criminal wrongdoing.
McKenzie, of Palm Harbor, had minor injuries. He was cited for careless driving. One of his passengers, Ashley Prazza-Odom, 48, had minor injuries, and the other, 18-year-old Jasmine Alcantara, was not injured. No patients were on board.
McKenzie's state driving record shows that he was cited nine years ago in Taylor County for driving 92 mph in a 65-mph zone. That led to a conviction. He was cited in Pasco County with failing to obey a traffic sign or device in 2003 and speeding in 2004, but adjudication was withheld in both cases.
Doug Moore, a spokesman for American Medical Response, which operates the ambulance, said McKenzie has been with the company for two years. Moore said the company performs background checks on every candidate.
Under company policy, McKenzie was placed on administrative leave during the investigation, Moore said.
In a prepared statement, Tom Diaz, American Medical Response's director of operations, said the company was cooperating with police and could not release any information about the people involved.
"As an organization dedicated to protecting and saving lives, we are sincerely saddened by this tragic death," Diaz said. "Our thoughts are with the family at this time as well as our crew members."
Mary Tarantola said her father, a former Marine Corps reservist from West Virginia, became a Boy Scout leader when his son, David Hager, now 26, became a Scout as a kid.
When Tarantola's sons got involved, Hager was there with them. Tarantola says the boys thought of their grandfather as a second dad.
On weekdays, Hager worked at his diesel engine shop in Ybor City, called Direct Injection of Florida. Tarantola said that before her father started the business, he taught night classes for diesel mechanics and worked on trucks.
But the weekends were for the Boy Scouts.
"He was a big enthusiast on that," Tarantola said.
Most weekends were spent at the nearly 5,000-acre McGregor Smith Boy Scout Reservation in Inverness, she said. Hager was helping to build a firearms range at the camp to teach the boys gun safety.
This weekend, he was signed up to help with the camp's "haunted woods" celebration.
George Faugl, another Scout leader, has worked with Hager for eight years. When the two met, son David Hager had been promoted to Eagle Scout and moved on. But Hager stayed, waiting for his grandsons.
He and Faugl served as district leaders, then became co-scoutmasters of the same Temple Terrace group.
"He just truly loved the program," Faugl said. "He thought it was the greatest thing for boys."
Hager had a penchant for neatness and tucking in shirts, perhaps from his Marine Corps days, Faugl said.
When Hager's grandsons finally joined Troop 188, Hager didn't favor them, Faugl said. If anything he was tougher on them than anyone else.
Faugl said this weekend's Halloween camping trip will go on, but he plans to shuttle a group of boys back to town for Hager's memorial service on Saturday.
Monday, like every Monday, Troop 188 will meet. But Faugl plans to hold a campfire and share stories about Hager.
"Then, we'll just go back on scouting again," he said. "Because that's what Jerry would want."
Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Staff writer Kim Wilmath can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386.