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Truck driver dies in fiery collision

(ran SS edition of Metro & State)

Authorities are not sure what caused the loaded concrete truck to smash into the rear of a garbage truck on State Road 580.

After he heard a loud crash early Thursday, Clearwater Officer Scott Dawson looked around the corner of the Countryside police substation and saw something he will not soon forget.

"It was this burning cement truck," said Dawson, a 10-year veteran. "The thing was burning as it was rolling along the road."

The out-of-control Florida Rock Industries concrete truck had just slammed into the rear of a garbage truck on State Road 580.

As Dawson watched, the concrete truck veered off SR 580, plowed through a guardrail and landed on its side in a ditch in front of the substation. After alerting firefighters, Dawson ran to his cruiser and grabbed a fire extinguisher from the trunk.

Diesel fuel spilling from the truck's crushed front end fed the flames. The driver was trapped in the mangled cab.

"I ran over and started spraying with the extinguisher, and the fire actually was growing," said Dawson, 36. "I could see the driver's head and the upper part of his body, so I was spraying mostly around him.

"Flames were on both sides of him, and it was growing and growing. I just couldn't get close enough. I would have loved to have had a chance to get him out."

But Dawson could not have saved the truck's driver, 52-year-old Charles "Ron" Sheppard, who police said was killed on impact, before the fire started.

Dawson sprayed until his extinguisher was empty. Firefighters arrived and extinguished the flames.

The sound of the collision awakened some residents of nearby Amber Glades Estates mobile home park on the south side of SR 580. Joseph Laurence got up and saw the burning truck.

"Man, those flames were really something," he said. "They were 40 feet high. The smoke was black."

The accident happened at 4:40 a.m. as Sheppard, of New Port Richey, headed to a job site in Pinellas Park with 67,000 pounds of concrete in his mixer. He was driving west on State Road 580. Just east of McMullen-Booth Road, police said, he drove into the rear of a Waste Collection Services truck.

Westbound lanes of SR 580 were closed for nearly eight hours for the investigation and for two wreckers to drag the fully-loaded concrete truck out of the ditch. A preliminary investigation had not determined what caused the accident.

Lt. Steve Burch, Clearwater police traffic section commander, could not say whether the waste truck was stopped at the time of the collision, or if speed was a factor. Both trucks were in the far left lane, nearest the median.

The driver of the waste truck was identified as Steven Bawkins, 29, of Oldsmar. He was not injured. A woman at Bawkins' house said he would not comment.

According to Burch, the waste truck had been at an office complex on the south side of SR 580 just before the collision. The impact spun the truck around and scattered debris across three lanes.

Officials at Waste Collection Services did not return telephone calls. State driver's license records show Bawkins was cited for speeding in 1989 and 1998 and for failing to obey a traffic device in 1994.

Sheppard, whose family could not be reached, was a driver for Florida Rock Industries for 15 years, said Pat Haley, area safety director for the company.

State driver's license records show Sheppard was cited in 1987 for failing to obey a traffic device and careless or improper driving.

Haley said Sheppard's truck was inspected before he left the company's Oldsmar facility to drive to Pinellas Park.

Several months ago, Sheppard's safety record and overall performance qualified him to compete in a company truck rodeo that included a written driving test, a truck inspection and driving an obstacle course. He advanced to statewide competition and won.

"He did a very good job," Haley said. "He was a good driver."

_ Times staff writer Edie Gross contributed to this report.