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Truck teeters, then tumbles into river

The driver survives the 40-foot fall and clings for about 3 hours to a Manatee River bridge.

Ricky Palmer spent the early hours of his 40th birthday clinging to the base of a bridge in the middle of the Manatee River.

Palmer's semitrailer truck apparently blew a tire, swerved off the east side of Interstate 75 and plunged into a shallow part of the Manatee River shortly after 4 a.m.

Despite the nearly 40-foot fall from a northbound lane of the Trooper J.D. Young Bridge, the St. Cloud man suffered only bruises and scrapes. Palmer swam to a nearby bridge piling, where he clung for nearly three hours until a passer-by in a boat rescued him.

"He is a very lucky man, a very lucky man," said Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Allen Mowbray.

Palmer, an independent contractor, had just made a delivery in Fort Myers and was returning to St. Cloud to spend his birthday with his fiancee, Mowbray said.

His truck was traveling in the far right lane of the bridge when he heard a "popping noise," Mowbray said. Authorities believe that was the sound of the tire blowing.

The 50-foot, 31,000-pound rig veered sharply to the left and struck the concrete guard wall. It then veered right, jackknifed and straddled the guard wall. The cab dangled over the water as the trailer hung up _ briefly _ on the wall.

Seconds later, the guard wall gave way, and the rig plummeted into the river. Palmer climbed out a window and swam in 4-foot-deep water to the concrete pillar.

He had one more problem. Nobody else had seen the crash.

Palmer hung onto the pillar until Don Fletcher, owner of the Happy Dolphin Marina, Bar and Grille in Ellenton, on the north side of the river, cruised by in a boat 2{ hours later. Fletcher had seen the partly submerged semitrailer rig from a distance around 7 a.m. and, along with a friend, took a pontoon boat out to the wreck, said Fletcher, 54. As the boat approached, Palmer signaled them to rescue him.

"Boy, was he glad to see us," Fletcher said.

Palmer could not be reached for comment Thursday.

The accident was the talk of the bar and the small riverside community Thursday. Fletcher named the day's food special the "Tractor-Trailer Surf and Turf with a Roll."

Many boaters went out to the truck to get a closer look.

"It makes for good conversation, now, but it could have been a real tragedy," Fletcher said. "It would have been real sad if they had to pull a body out of the river."

The semitrailer truck lay half submerged in the murky water all day Thursday, while authorities considered the problem of lifting it out of the waterway. State Department of Environmental Protection officials were called in to assess the damage. Environmental damage was minimal, officials said.

Authorities could not remove the truck Thursday because they were unable to locate a crane large enough and could not coordinate the project with all the agencies that needed to be involved, including Palmer's insurance company.

FHP troopers found no evidence of drugs or alcohol being a factor and did not perform a blood test on Palmer. FHP officials said he he does not a have a history of careless driving, and no charges are pending.

_ Herald-Tribune staff writers Dale White, Rich Shopes and Brett Barrouquere contributed to this report.