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‘This is not NASCAR.’ Body of driver who fell off Howard Frankland found. Charges could be filed.

An investigation into the two-vehicle crash could result in criminal charges for the other driver, a Florida Highway Patrol spokesman said.
A 2006 Saturn SUV is retrieved from the waters below the Howard Frankland Bridge on Wednesday after a two-vehicle crash sent it over the bridge barrier. The search for the driver any other occupants resumed Thursday morning.
A 2006 Saturn SUV is retrieved from the waters below the Howard Frankland Bridge on Wednesday after a two-vehicle crash sent it over the bridge barrier. The search for the driver any other occupants resumed Thursday morning. [ FHP ]
Published Aug. 29, 2019
Updated Aug. 29, 2019

TAMPA — Search crews on Thursday found the body of the driver of an SUV that plunged off the Howard Frankland bridge a day earlier.

He was identified as Hiran Reis Vaz, 53, a Tampa resident with a history of driving infractions, according to the Florida Highway Patrol. His body was recovered shortly before 1 p.m., about 30 hours after the crash. Troopers don’t yet know if anyone else was riding with him, and no other bodies were found.

The other driver involved in the two-vehicle collision Wednesday that sent the SUV rolling off the bridge was 30-year-old Wilson Rowland. Both were driving “aggressively and recklessly,” said Highway Patrol Sgt. Steve Gaskins.

The investigation is continuing and could result in charges being filed against the surviving driver, Rowland.

“His driving behavior was such that it became reckless by cutting off the other driver,” Gaskins said. “When you knowingly cut people off as they’re trying to go around you, you’re putting yourself and others at risk.”

RELATED STORY: Search suspended for whoever was inside SUV that spun off Howard Frankland Bridge

Vaz was driving a 2006 Saturn SUV. Rowland was driving a 2015 Ford F-150 pickup. The crash took place on the southbound lanes of the Howard Frankland shortly after 7 a.m. Wednesday, just past the hump.

Moments before the crash, troopers said the SUV driver pulled up at a high speed and began to tailgate the pickup, then changed lanes. Rowland countered with a lane change in front of the SUV, the Highway Patrol said.

The SUV driver moved again, to the inside lane, and tried to pass Rowland, who made yet another lane change into the Saturn’s path, troopers said. As a result, the rear left side of the pickup collided with the front ride side of the Saturn.

Both vehicles started to spin. Then the SUV overturned multiple times, slammed into the outside barrier wall and went over it, falling into the murky waters of Tampa Bay. The pickup stayed upright.

“This is not NASCAR out there on the Howard Frankland Bridge, and that’s what it became yesterday,” Gaskins said.

Rowland was not injured, troopers said. He declined to comment when the Tampa Bay Times reached him by phone after the incident.

Divers located and floated the Saturn to the surface on. A crane truck hoisted the empty SUV onto the bridge. Meantime, investigators worked to reconstruct the crash by interviewing witnesses and examining evidence such as skid marks left on the pavement.

The process snarled traffic for hours as motorists squeezed by in the emergency lane. That was unavoidable, Gaskins said.

“This likely could be a criminal investigation, so we had to protect our potential crime scene just like if it was a house or a store,” he said. “If we don’t get the evidence off the roadway right then and there, then it’s gone forever.”

According to public records, Vaz was originally from Brazil and had a record of traffic infractions. His most recent infractions from Texas were 2015 citations for speeding and driving without a license; and 2017 tickets of driving without proof of insurance or a license.

In Hillsborough County, he was cited in May 2017 for driving with a license that had been expired for more than six months. He was cited for careless driving on June 7 and chose to take a driving course.

Rowland, who is from Georgia, was involved in a crash in Florida in October, 2018, according to state records.

When the SUV fell into the bay, several agencies rushed out boats to help with Wednesday’s search. The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office continued to search until dark, then sent its boats and a helicopter back out Thursday morning, said Cpl. Jessica Mackesy.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office and St. Petersburg Police Department each sent a boat, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission sent divers, Mackesy said. The Coast Guard also returned to help.

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird and staff writer Kavitha Surana contributed to this report.