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Hurricane Ian linked to 2 Hillsborough deaths

Almost 100 miles north of where the Category 4 storm made landfall, its aftermath claimed the lives of two residents.
Candles, flowers and photos mark the spot in Plant City where Nathan Vega, 29, riding home on his motorbike, hit a tree felled by Hurricane Ian. Vega died from his injuries.
Candles, flowers and photos mark the spot in Plant City where Nathan Vega, 29, riding home on his motorbike, hit a tree felled by Hurricane Ian. Vega died from his injuries. [ Vega family ]
Published Oct. 6|Updated Oct. 7

In Plant City, a combination of pitch-dark country roads and a fallen tree proved fatal for Nathan Vega, who was just 29.

About 10 miles south, in her Durant home, Nancy O’Connor fell in the dark of a power cut, the start of a medical crisis that ended with the 85-year-old dying at Tampa General Hospital days later.

Hillsborough County escaped the worst after Hurricane Ian passed Tampa Bay, its outer winds toppling trees and knocking out power but leaving shorelines intact. Still, the perilous conditions the storm left behind claimed the lives of two residents, according to records released this week by the county’s medical examiner.

They are among more than 100 deaths that have so far been attributed to the Category 4 storm that made landfall in Southwest Florida last week.

Vega died sometime Sept. 30.

A motorcycle fanatic since the age of 10, he was riding back to his Plant City home about 5 a.m. after hanging out with friends from his motorcycle club. He struck a large fallen tree at the intersection of Glen Harwell and Rogers roads.

The tree had been blocking the road since around 5 p.m. on Sept. 28, the day the storm came through Hillsborough, said his mom, Amarilis Vega. Neighbors told her that there were no cones or other warnings of the hazard.

Related: ‘It’ll start to kill me.’ Hurricane Ian caused gas and chemical spills, records show

Vega wasn’t discovered for another 12 hours, when a neighborhood boy spotted the motorcycle “twisted around” the tree, the medical examiner’s report said.

He was wearing a helmet, but the impact had caused severe trauma to his head, killing him. His mom said she will likely never know if he died instantaneously or lay there for a while before succumbing to his injuries.

“That’s the part I’m having a really hard time with,” she said.

She also questioned why such a significant hazard remained in the roadway for at least 36 hours. The tree has since been hauled to the side of the road.

Nathan Vega, 29, was found dead Nov. 30 after crashing into a felled tree in Plant City.
Nathan Vega, 29, was found dead Nov. 30 after crashing into a felled tree in Plant City. [ Vega family ]

Vega was born in Florida but split his time between Plant City and Clarksville, Tennessee, where he attended high school, his mother said.

As a child, he had a minibike that he loved. She bought him a car when he started vocational school, but he always wanted his own motorbike. He worked mostly as an auto mechanic and bought himself a Kawasaki Ninja.

“I used to tell him all the time, ‘be careful,’” she said. “He told me, ‘If I pass away riding my bike, please don’t be sad. Just know, I went doing something that made me happy; I went with a smile on my face.’”

Related: St. Petersburg extended its state of emergency after Hurricane Ian. Here’s why

More than 100 friends and relatives attended a candlelight vigil for Vega at the site of the crash Tuesday evening. It included family and friends who flew in from Clarksville, Amarilis Vega said.

She was overwhelmed by the number of people who wanted to share stories of her son. Vega wore Walmart sneakers rather than spend money on expensive brands. He always scoffed Ramen noodles and doted on his girlfriend’s 4-month-old daughter.

“I’m sad because my son is gone, but so proud he was able to touch so many lives,” she said.

Power outage leads to injury

The other case reported by the medical examiner was linked to a power outage from the storm.

O’Connor was getting ready to join her family for a cookout on Sept. 30 since they had no power at the 15-acre lot with three homes they call the compound, said her son, Brady Harris.

She noticed her right ear was bleeding and fell as she rushed to the bathroom in the dark, according to a medical examiner report.

When the family called her to see if she was coming, she fell again, Harris said.

O’Connor was taken in an ambulance to Tampa General, where tests showed she had a fracture in her thigh bone. After a day of tests, she had an operation to replace half of the hip on Oct. 2.

The procedure was completed around 6 p.m. The family was told it had gone well and that O’Connor was in recovery, Harris said.

But the wait to see her stretched for hours and hours. Doctors told them she had been moved to intensive care. Her family wondered how things had suddenly gone so wrong.

It was around midnight when they finally were allowed to see her. She was intubated and her blood pressure and pulse were fluctuating, Harris said.

When her heart suddenly stopped, the family was asked to leave the room. One doctor told them there was a blood clot in her heart.

O’Connor coded twice more. Harris said he had to make the hard call to stop. It was almost 2 a.m.

“She took her last two breaths,” he said. “At least we were there for that.”

Nancy O'Connor and her son, Brady Harris. O'Connor died after surgery to repair a hip she injured during a power outage from Hurricane Ian.
Nancy O'Connor and her son, Brady Harris. O'Connor died after surgery to repair a hip she injured during a power outage from Hurricane Ian. [ Brady Harris ]

O’Connor bought the Durant property in 1967. She lived her whole life without central air and heat, save for a window unit, Harris said. Mostly she used it to make Raven, her mixed-breed dog, more comfortable.

A mom to three kids, she was loving but strict. Harris remembers he had to write an essay whenever he got in trouble at school. A condition of him having a dirt bike was that he write a five-page paper detailing all the safety equipment he would use, he said.

“She taught me that way — I learned my responsibilities,” Harris said.

A bookkeeper by trade, she loved riding horses and taught her children how to care for the cows and horses they kept. She thought nothing of being outside in the middle of the night to herd escaped cows back onto their land, then stapling up barbed wire.

Sharing her land with her family meant she got to watch her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who called her G-Mommy, grow up.

“They’d run through the pasture and spend time with her and see if she needed any help,” Harris said.

She loved watching college football and Tampa Bay Lightning playoff hockey with her son, even though she complained about the 77 degrees he set on his A/C thermostat.

“Anytime she came up, she brought a jacket,” he said.

She was still active, and her last horse passed away just 18 months ago, he said. Harris has no doubt that she’d be alive, and still taking Raven for walks, were it not for the storm.

• • •

Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Ian coverage

HOW TO HELP: Where to donate or volunteer to help Hurricane Ian victims.

FEMA: Floridians hurt by Ian can now apply for FEMA assistance. Here’s how.

THE STORM HAS PASSED: Now what? Safety tips for returning home.

POST-STORM QUESTIONS: After Hurricane Ian, how to get help with fallen trees, food, damaged shelter.

WEATHER EFFECTS: Hurricane Ian was supposed to slam Tampa Bay head on. What happened?

MORE STORM COVERAGE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane.

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