ST. PETERSBURG — Commuters on the southbound Howard Frankland Bridge were witnesses to a shocking sight at sunrise Wednesday: A collision on the hump sent an SUV rolling over the bridge barrier and into the waters of Tampa Bay.
Emergency units rushed to the scene by land and water to launch a search that would snarl traffic for hours.
But the scene grew more grim with each passing hour: There was no sign of the SUV’s driver or any passengers who may have been inside.
“No occupants were seen coming out of the vehicle or out of the water,” St. Petersburg Fire Rescue Lt. Steve Lawrence said shortly after the crash.
The search continued through the day. It was suspended at about 7:45 p.m.
“At this point it’s a recovery mission,” Tampa police spokesman Steve Hegarty said earlier in the day.
Charges may be pending, according to the Florida Highway Patrol, which gave this count of the chain of events:
It started shortly after 7 a.m. when a 2006 Saturn SUV approached a 2015 Ford F-150 pickup at a high rate of speed in the inside southbound lane.
The SUV started tailgating the pickup, driven by 30-year-old Wilson Rowland of Tampa. Then the SUV moved to the inside center lane, troopers said. The pickup driver countered and changed lanes in front of the SUV, which then steered back to the inside lane and tried to pass the pickup.
The pickup driver tried to get back into the inside lane, steering into the path of the SUV, troopers said. The left rear side of the pickup collided with the front right side of the SUV. Both vehicles began to spin.
The pickup stayed upright, coming to rest in the center of the span. The SUV overturned several times, went over the barrier wall on the outside lane and ended up in the water.
Boats from agencies such as the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, Tampa Fire Rescue, Tampa Police Department, St. Petersburg Fire Rescue and the Coast Guard all sped to the scene.
Standard procedure is to send as many first-responders as possible to an emergency like this one, said Tampa Fire Rescue spokesman Jason Penny.
“Time is of the essence and it’s better to have more people respond and tell them to cancel rather than wait for more assets to arrive,” Penny said.
The Highway Patrol first reported that no one had been found at about 8:15 a.m., more than an hour after the Saturn splashed into the water.
The water in that part of the bay is about 18 to 20 feet deep, Hegarty said.
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Crews used sonar to search the bottom of the bay as divers with the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office and Tampa Police Department grappled with extremely low visibility, Hegarty said.
Divers used inflatable bag-like devices to float the SUV to the surface. At about 11:35 a.m., as storm clouds darkened the horizon, a crane truck hoisted the mangled Saturn four-door out of the water and lowered it onto the bridge upside down.
The windshield had shattered and was dangling partially attached to the frame. The front driver- and passenger-side windows appeared to be down or missing. There was still no sign of whoever had been inside.
As crews worked at the scene, rush hour traffic squeezed by on the inside shoulder, prompting backups as far east as Interstate 4. Two of the bridge’s southbound lanes were reopened by 11 a.m. All lanes were open by about 2 p.m.
Speed alone isn’t enough to propel a vehicle off the Howard Frankland, according to the Florida Department of Transportation. If a vehicle strikes the barrier with four wheels on the ground, the barrier should stop or redirect it.
But if a vehicle with a high center of gravity, such as a large pickup or SUV, were to strike the barrier at a severe angle, the risk is much higher, said Allan Urbonas, district design engineer for the state. It would also be high for a vehicle already rolling over.
The Howard Frankland barrier is about 32 inches high, which was the standard in 1990 when the southbound lanes opened. The state has since raised that to 38 inches, but state officials said there were too many factors at play to know if that would have made a difference Wednesday.
The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office said its marine deputies spent the rest of the day searching the bay.
Rowland, the Ford’s driver, was not injured, troopers said. He declined to comment when reached by phone Wednesday afternoon.
He is an employee at St. Petersburg electrical contractor Power Design Inc., said David Redden, general counsel and vice-president. A Facebook page that appears to be Rowland’s says he is a virtual design and construction project manager.
Anyone who witnessed this incident is asked to contact the Highway Patrol at (813) 558-1800 or by dialing *347.
Times staff writer Caitlin Johnston contributed to this report.