Faced with rush hour traffic on Interstate 275 leaving downtown, David Volpi and Tom Simpson were surprised to find traffic through the interchange light Thursday.
As Simpson's Jeep Wagoneer gained speed and headed toward the underpass at Interstate 4, Volpi began to yell, "Watch Out! Watch Out! Stop!"
Both men looked up in horror as a semitrailer truck tractor came crashing through the guardrail from Interstate 4, flipped 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 was killed instantly, Florida Highway Patrol officials said later. His name was not released pending notification of relatives.
The spectacular crash at the infamous "Malfunction Junction" happened at 5 p.m. 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.
I-275 was closed at the Ashley Street exit, and I-4 was closed at 50th Street. Traffic was rerouted to side streets, which quickly became clogged.
The semitrailer truck tractor had just exited westbound I-4 heading toward downtown, said FHP Lt. Eddie Johnson. The truck was in the right lane when it veered into the left lane and hit a delivery truck. The delivery truck was forced over the guardrail and left hanging over the edge of the roadway.
The semi tractor continued over the guardrail, where it flipped and landed upside-down on the northbound lanes of I-275 about 30 feet below.
Three other drivers stopped on the I-4 exit and pulled the driver from the delivery truck. Authorities had not released his name late Thursday night.
Pamela Burke, an adjuster with Elliott Claims Service who handles insurance for the company that owns the truck, said the delivery driver is Russell Morris.
Morris was taken by ambulance to Tampa General Hospital, where he was listed in fair condition Thursday night.
"I saw it. He just cut (the delivery truck) 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 to the side through the interchange 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."
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 fall. 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 semitrailer tractor. 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 was driving his truck for Roadway Global Air, according to Burke, the claims adjuster. Calls there were not returned Thursday night.
The accident happened at the interchange long ago nicknamed "Malfunction Junction" for the high number of accidents 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 that 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."