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Driver dies after fiery wreck

Rescuers free a Homosassa man from his burning car after he hits a pole in Hernando Beach. He later dies.

A Homosassa man died Tuesday night after he drove his Corvette into a telephone pole and he was trapped when the car burst into flames.

Officials said they were astounded that William Harold Matthews, 52, of 3 Hoptree Court in the Sugarmill Woods subdivision was still alive when they pulled him from the wreckage of his yellow 1970 Corvette. Matthews was driving north on Shoal Line Boulevard about 9:30 p.m. when he drove off the east side of the road just north of Calienta Street and crashed into the pole, according to a Florida Highway Patrol report. He sustained burns over almost all of his body and died soon after being flown to Tampa General Hospital.

"When he hit the telephone pole , he must have been going so fast the gas line ruptured and it immediately ignited," said Hernando Beach fire Chief Dan Chichester, who responded to the accident. "Based on my experience _ I've been with the fire department since 1963 _ nobody could survive that."

Yet eight minutes after Chichester arrived and classified the accident as a death, firefighters finished putting out the blaze and pulled Matthews from his car.

"He gasped for air, which was a surprise for us," Chichester said. "I probably should have said it was a probable Signal 7, but it was irrelevant."

Signal 7 is the radio code for a death.

Officials with Florida Regional Emergency Medical Services said Wednesday that the fact that Chichester thought Matthews was already dead had no effect on the response time of ambulances and a helicopter that arrived to fly him to Tampa General Hospital.

"Until we can do an ECK (electrocardiogram) on them to confirm there is no electrical activity, we treat them as if they are still alive. We do not slow down," dispatcher Robert Wortman said.

According to 911 audiotapes, an emergency call about a car on fire came into Spring Hill Fire and Rescue dispatchers at 9:11 p.m., at which time firefighters were notified. Four minutes later, a second call came in saying there was a man trapped inside. An ambulance was dispatched.

Chichester arrived at the accident about 9:17 p.m. and informed others that it was a Signal 7. Eight minutes later, when the fire was out and Matthews was pulled from the car, Chichester told dispatchers, "The patient is still alive at this time."

By 9:26 p.m., paramedics arrived, and by 9:43, the helicopter was on the scene.

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