Deep in the woods of Osceola County, a half-hour from the nearest paved road, Don Spirit of Tampa frantically drove through brush and dirt Wednesday as the 9-year-old son he had accidentally shot lay dying in the flatbed of his pickup truck.
On the last morning of a deer hunting vacation for Spirit and his sons Kyle, 9, and Josh, 11, deputies said the father was pointing out rust on the muzzle of his .300-caliber Magnum rifle when it fired, shooting his younger son in the head.
For the past week, the three had camped at the Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area near rural Kenansville, about 50 miles southeast of Orlando. They had planned to return to their Tampa home later Wednesday, but the accident happened shortly before noon.
As Spirit drove for help, he repeatedly dialed 911 on his cell phone, but the area was too remote to send a signal. Finally, he reached his wife, Christine, in Tampa, and she called the Osceola County Sheriff's Office.
Mike Evans, 46, of Fort Pierce was driving out of the woods on a narrow dirt trail when he caught sight of Spirit's red, white and blue pickup coming up fast behind him. When Evans let the speeding truck pass, he saw Kyle wounded in the flatbed.
"It was the most horrible thing I have ever seen," Evans said. He sped to a hunting camp behind Spirit's truck. There, when Spirit got out of his truck, he fell to his knees in the dirt, sobbing "Why me?" Evans said.
Spirit, who lives in the Interbay neighborhood of South Tampa, worked as a tree trimmer until this summer. His former bosses describe him as an avid hunter and loving father.
"He went hunting all the time," said Tammy Therrien, co-owner of Speedy Tree Care, a Tampa business for which Spirit worked. "He was a very hard worker, a very good guy. I know he loves his family."
About 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, Spirit and his sons were 7 miles into the woods when Spirit's rifle went off. After he rushed Kyle back to the campsite, shaken hunters gathered and called for help on cell phones.
Evans was worried that Spirit would harm himself, so he helped other hunters lead the father from the body of his 9-year-old son. Evans also tried to comfort 11-year-old Josh.
"I told the boy to be strong for his parents," Evans said. "I said now he has to be a man sooner that most."
By the time paramedics arrived, they could do nothing to save the boy.
"It was a high-powered rifle," said Osceola sheriff's Detective Kerwin King. "You can imagine what it could have done."
Spirit and Josh were sequestered in a fellow camper's trailer with family from Tampa and Fort Pierce.
The Osceola County Sheriff's Office and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission are investigating, but authorities said the shooting appeared to be an accident.
The boy's death shook campers at the wildlife management area, 60,000 acres of pine, prairies and cypress hammocks that are popular with hunters seeking deer, rabbits, turkeys and wild boar.
Most of the hunters in the campground sat solemnly in fold-up chairs beside their recreational vehicles. Some said they wouldn't mind seeing more signs about gun safety posted in the area, while others said they're not certain what could have prevented the shooting.
"It's just a sad, sad thing," Evans said.
_ Times staff writers Tamara Lush and Mike Brassfield and researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.