TAMPA — Cruising north on Interstate 75 on the way to his next work assignment, George Pagan thought about taking the Bruce B. Downs Boulevard exit.
It was about 6 p.m. Wednesday and Pagan, a computer and automated teller machine technician, was headed to a credit union in the Wesley Chapel area. He approached the Bruce B. Downs exit and decided taking the State Road 56 exit about a mile up the road would be faster.
“Traffic was flowing beautifully, 70 miles per hour, everything was cool,” said Pagan, 57, of Tampa.
But just past the overpass on New Tampa Boulevard, traffic began to slow. As Pagan hit the brakes of his Ford work van, he glanced in the rear mirror to check if traffic was slowing down behind him.
That's when he saw a semi-trailer truck sliding sideways right for him. He heard the sound of rubber screeching on pavement.
“It happened so fast,” Pagan said. “I just grabbed my steering wheel and waited for it.”
The chain-reaction crash that unfolded a second later would kill two people, injure five more — including Pagan — and force authorities to close all northbound lanes of the interstate for 13 hours while crews worked at the scene.
The driver of an International semi-trailer truck came upon the stopped line of traffic and swerved from the outside lane to the center lane to avoid a collision with one car but crashed into the back of another, a Chevy SUV, according to the Florida Highway Patrol. The force of that collision pushed the Chevy into a Buick sedan. The Buick then struck a BMW sedan.
The International semi continued forward and struck a Mercedes and a Freightliner semi carrying appliances. The International came to rest on top of the Mercedes and struck a highway sign pillar. Both vehicles caught fire and became engulfed in flames.
The drivers of the International semi and the Mercedes died at the scene. Their names have not been released because troopers were working to notify their families.
The Highway Patrol account lists Pagan's van among the involved vehicles but doesn't specify where in the sequence he was struck. He figures it was right after the Chevy SUV.
After the collision, Pagan remembers pressing the brake pedal, but his van kept rolling, over a rise in the grassy shoulder and into a low-lying area near the treeline. Both of the van’s air bags deployed. Unable to open the driver’s door, Pagan climbed over the center console and out the passenger side.
He saw the semi was on fire. He didn’t know it was on top of another car.
"There were people around and I'm saying, 'Did anybody get the guy out of the truck,'" Pagan recalled.
He heard a boom, then more as the flames grew.
Not far from his van, Pagan saw one of the damaged vehicles — he thinks it was the Chevy SUV — and a woman still behind the wheel. She appeared to be unconscious. Pagan and another man tried to open the driver’s door without success. The woman then appeared to wake up and started “freaking out,” Pagan said. Pagan saw that she had a baby in the vehicle. He said both were eventually able to get out.
The Chevy's driver, 35-year-old Candice Reetz of Wesley Chapel, was taken to Tampa General Hospital with serious injuries.
The drivers of the Buick and second semi driver were identified as Robert Maldonado, Jr., 28, of Land O’Lakes, and 36-year-old Jason Howard of Lakeland. Both had minor injuries and were treated at local hospitals, troopers said.
The BMW driver, Katheleen Ybarra, 26, of Land O’ Lakes, was also treated at a hospital for minor injuries. A 1-year-old child in the BMW was using a car seat and was not injured in the crash.
Pasco Fire Rescue crews arrived and extinguished the blaze. Investigators didn’t realize until several hours after arriving on scene that the first semi had come rest on top of a car, said Sgt. Steve Gaskins, a spokesman for the Highway Patrol. Investigators were using dental records to confirm the drivers’ identities, he said.
Investigators and clean-up crews worked through the night, hauling away the charred wreckage and scooping up of the cardboard milk cartons that had spilled out of the International’s trailer during the crash.
Two of the three northbound travel lanes reopened about 7 a.m. Thursday, the third lane about four hours later.
Pagan asked to be taken to a hospital to be checked out and was soon released. By the time he went to bed Wednesday night, he knew the semi driver had died. He woke up Thursday to the news that a second person was dead.
His back was sore, he said, but he felt lucky.
Correction: This post has been updated with the correct make of the first semi-trailer truck. The Florida Highway Patrol initially provided incorrect information.