Facing rush hour as they left downtown Tampa on Thursday, David Volpi and Tom Simpson were surprised at the light traffic going north on Interstate 275.
But as Simpson's Jeep Wagoneer gained speed heading toward the underpass at Interstate 4, Volpi suddenly began to yell "Watch Out! Watch Out! Stop!."
Both men looked up in horror as a semitrailer cab flipped and came crashing through the guardrail from I-4 and slammed onto the road in front of them.
"It was a sick feeling in my stomach," Simpson said. "My arms and legs started to tremble."
The men got out of the Jeep, rushed to the driver's side of the truck and began to yell to the driver.
"We thought at first it was going to explode," Simpson said. "We were yelling at him to see if he could hear us, but he couldn't."
The driver of the truck was killed instantly, Florida Highway Patrol officials said later. His name was not released because his relatives had not been notified.
The spectacular crash at the infamous "malfunction junction" happened at 5 p.m. Incredibly, the falling truck did not hit any cars on I-275, in area where traffic is often bumper-to-bumper at that time of day.
Heavy rush hour traffic quickly backed up for several miles. Westbound I-4 and northbound I-275 were closed for more than four hours after the accident. On ramps were closed and traffic rerouted to side streets that also quickly became clogged.
The semi cab had just exited westbound I-4 heading toward downtown, said FHP Lt. Eddie Johnson. It was in the right lane when it veered into the left lane and hit a delivery truck. The delivery truck was forced over the guard rail and was left hanging over the edge of the roadway.
The semi cab continued over the guardrail where it flipped and landed upside down on the northbound lanes of I-275 about 15 feet below.
Three other drivers stopped on the I-4 exit and pulled driver Russell Morris from the delivery truck. Morris, 43, of 7205 Chesswood Court in Tampa, was taken by ambulance to Tampa General Hospital where he was reported in fair condition.
"I saw it. He just cut him off, hit the guardrail and came nose down," Volpi said. "He lost control."
Volpi said only one other car was near the underpass when the accident occurred. The woman in that car pulled over just north of the overpass and called police on her cellular phone.
"My fear is that we were going under and he (Simpson) was looking at the road as the truck was coming over the top," Volpi said. "It's a scary thought it happened so quickly."
"It's very scary just thinking that a truck that size could come down at any moment," said Russell Johnson, who was coming home from work when he saw the flashing lights. "It's sad, but it's a blessing that only one person died. It could have been more."
Kris Kaiser was leaving his downtown office when he saw traffic begin to back up and heard about the accident on the radio.
"It's definitely devastating," Kaiser said. "The traffic itself is frustrating because you have people slowing down to look and there's no reason for it."
Hours after the accident, authorities had not removed the body of the driver from his rig. A large tow truck arrived to lift the crushed truck from the road.
Meanwhile, Tampa police officers guarded the area below the delivery truck for fear it too would drop to the ground. Officials said the fact it was weighted down with air conditioning parts probably saved the truck from also going over the edge.
Workers placed large canvas straps around the moving truck as three tow trucks prepared to pull it back onto I-4.
Authorities would not release any information on the driver of the semi cab. The truck was labeled Alro Metals Service Center Corp., a Tampa metal and industrial supply company. Officials with the company could not be reached for comment Thursday night.
Morris, the delivery truck driver, was driving for Roadway Global Air, said Pamela Burke, an adjuster with Elliott Claims Service who handles insurance for the company that owns the truck. Calls to that company also went unreturned Thursday night.
The accident happened at an interchange infamous for the high number of accidents that occur there.
"This interchange was constructed over 20 years ago," said Johnson, of the FHP. "Obviously with the amount of traffic and population growth, they need to widen it."
Johnson said despite its bad reputation, people still speed through the area.
"The best that we can say is defensive driving," Johnson said. "We need to be aware of what we're doing."