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Off-duty firefighter tries to save truck driver

Rick Cushman was returning from a happy reunion with his brother when the unexpected occurred.

The Dunnellon resident was northbound on Interstate 75, about one mile north of State Road 50, at 1:23 p.m. Friday when a semitrailer truck with a Maine license plate took a turn for the worse.

The truck, which appeared to be carrying metal sinks, glided off the road several hundred yards ahead of Cushman, smashed into a tree not more than 12 yards away from the road and exploded.

Cushman, a firefighter with 16 years of experience, pulled over and called for help on his CB radio. He grabbed his fire suit and tried to save the driver.

"I tried my damnedest to get to him. I just couldn't get him. I hope he knows I tried," Cushman said, wiping away tears.

Cushman's tears reflected what he thinks is one of the more difficult parts of his profession.

"One is too many. It still hurts. Some say they get used to it, but you never get used to a man dying. You learn how to cope, but you never get used to it," he said.

Brothers James and Marvin Almand from Riverview were traveling south on the interstate, returning from a farm exposition in Georgia, when the accident occurred.

"We saw the truck swerve like it blew a tire," James Almand said. "It made a real smooth exit. Then it hit a tree and exploded."

Almond said he stopped the car, and he and his brother rushed to the scene with about five others to see if they could help. When they reached the site, another explosion sent flames into the air and scorched a couple of hundred yards of pasture off the highway.

"We knew that there was no way that we could get him out if he were still in the cab. The whole thing was in flames. It was like an atomic bomb causing a mushroom cloud," Almond said.

Cushman thought the same, and aborted the rescue attempt.

"When he hit the pine tree I started praying: "Please let him get thrown out.' I walked around, looking for him. After the second explosion, I gave up. I knew there was no way he could still be alive," Cushman said.

Almond said there were three more explosions, several minutes apart.

Before the third, Almond said the East Hernando Fire Department responded.

About 1,000 gallons of water were used in what East Hernando Fire Department Chief Danny Roberts said was an uncommon situation. He said his department hadn't handled an explosion of this magnitude for several years.

"This crew always works together. They're prepared and they're a good team. We hate to see this, but we're prepared," he said.

Cushman was upset that so few people tried to rescue the driver.

"About 90 percent proceeded on their way. I'd rather not say what I think about that, but if they were lying under that scrap of metal, they'd like someone to help them."

Officials have not identified the driver of the truck, said Sgt. Jerry Perdue of the Florida Highway Patrol. They are still investigating.

Cushman surmised the driver fell asleep at the wheel.

Almand said he didn't have a chance to see what the driver was doing moments before the accident.

"There wasn't any time," he said. "It all happened so fast."