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Bridge raised without warning

An Illinois woman is injured when her car jumps the gap as the Pinellas Bayway drawbridge rises. The bridge tender is fired.

A bridge tender suspected of drinking on the job was fired shortly after he opened the Pinellas Bayway without warning, injuring a driver whose car jumped the gap and blew all four tires, authorities said.

Michael David Montgomery, 40, raised the drawbridge late Friday for the Starlite Princess, a 100-foot paddle wheel boat offering lunch and dinner cruises, authorities said.

Rather than turn on red signal lights and lower the barricades first, Montgomery just raised the bridge, Florida Highway Patrol Officer Jeff Benoit said.

As the bridge rose 8 to 10 feet, a car driven by a 21-year-old Illinois woman jumped the gap and landed on the other side, the trooper said.

"She got airborne and came over the thing," Benoit said.

Maurine Cody of Oak Lawn, Ill., and her mother, Penny, were returning from St. Pete Beach when she thought the car hit a bump.

"It just felt like it was going on down a curb," Maurine Cody said Monday. "I don't remember being airborne. All I remember is the sounds," which she described as "just a bunch of bings. . . . Different parts from underneath the car fell off into the water."

Maurine Cody said she was taken to the hospital, where she was told she has a fractured vertebra. Her mother was unharmed. The car sustained $3,000 to $4,000 damage.

Soon after the incident, Montgomery's supervisor arrived.

Mark Smith had been alerted by another bridge tender who overheard a radio conversation between Montgomery and a boat. That bridge tender, whose identity was not revealed, described Montgomery as having a slurred voice and not making sense, according to Smith's report to the Department of Transportation.

Smith decided to go to the Bayway after he spoke with Montgomery over the phone.

Montgomery's voice "did sound slurred when I asked him what was going on," Smith reported. "He told me that everything was under control, he was getting ready for an opening and hung up."

Smith said he then got another call indicating that the Starlite Princess had reported the Bayway Bridge had opened without lowering its barricades.

The Bayway has a safety mechanism to ensure that gates are down and warning lights are on before the bridge goes up. But officials had overridden it because of ongoing problems with the bridge. That meant safety features had to be started manually.

When Smith got to the bridge, he found Montgomery with two highway patrol officers. "He talked to me in a slurred voice and said something like, "Hi, how you doing?' Then he really didn't make much sense to me," Smith wrote. "I noticed that his eyes were bloodshot at the time."

Smith called in a replacement and gave Montgomery's belongings to officers who were putting him through field sobriety tests. He said he asked the officers to tell Montgomery that he had been fired. "I stood by while they cuffed him, told him they were taking him to the hospital and that he was terminated from his job as bridge tender," Smith wrote.

Cody said Montgomery "couldn't even stand up straight" when she saw him.

Montgomery, 40, of 411 18th Ave., No. 3, Indian Rocks Beach, failed field sobriety tests at the scene and was sent to Bayfront Medical Center for blood-alcohol tests, Benoit said. The results of those tests are incomplete.

Montgomery has been charged with culpable negligence, a misdemeanor. He could not be reached from comment.

Public records show Montgomery had two previous incidents of driving under the influence.

Cody's injuries have put a damper on her vacation, she said.

"It's really hard to walk, take a shower and get dressed," Cody said. She and her mother plan to return to Illinois on Wednesday.

_ Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

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