TAMPA — Tracy Carson and Daniel Whitfield were strangers when Carson picked up Whitfield at his St. Petersburg home around sunrise one Monday morning in July.
Whitfield was headed to Tampa International Airport to catch a flight to Washington, D.C. Carson, who also lived in St. Petersburg, was the Uber driver who showed up when he hailed a ride.
They would have had a lot to chat about: The six children between them, Whitfield’s youngest about to celebrate her first birthday. His job as a copywriter and his recently published debut novel. Carson’s stint in the U.S. Air Force and world travels.
By about 7 a.m., they made it across the Howard Frankland Bridge and Carson stopped for traffic backed up on the exit ramp from northbound Interstate 275 to State Road 589 and Kennedy Boulevard. That’s when the driver of a pickup truck slammed into the back of the Toyota Camry that Carson was driving, troopers said.
Carson, 53, and Whitfield, 39, both died at the scene.
Now, the representatives of their estates have filed wrongful death lawsuits against the pickup driver and the company he was working for that day, claiming his negligence caused the crash.
The deaths appear to be yet another cautionary tale about the dangers of distracted driving: According to a crash report, the pickup driver told troopers he’d dropped his phone and was trying to retrieve it when the crash happened.
Separate paths led to St. Pete
Daniel John Whitfield had a couple of big goals for his life — to become a published author and have a big family. He accomplished both.
Whitfield was born in Birmingham, England, and had diverse tastes as a kid. He loved professional wrestling, Star Wars and G.I. Joe, but by 14 also had a photo of conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on his wall, according to his obituary. He sang and acted in school musicals, Shakespearean plays and operas.
After earning a degree from the University of Nottingham, Whitfield was awarded a scholarship to attend the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, where he studied American and Japanese History and taught British history as a teaching assistant. He didn’t intend on staying in the United States, but moved to Washington, D.C., for an internship and met the woman he would marry, said Michael Babboni, an attorney with Goldman, Babboni, Fernandez, Murphy and Walsh, the St. Petersburg firm representing Whitfield’s widow, Nena.
Soon after, Whitfield landed a job with Eberle Communications Group, a company based in McLean, Virginia, just outside of Washington, that provides fundraising and copywriting services for various causes. He and Nena married in 2014 and their daughter Dagny was born the following year.
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The couple fell in love with St. Petersburg and the nearby gulf beaches during occasional visits to one of Nena’s friends, Babboni said.
“As Nena explained it, they were on St. Pete Beach and they looked at each other and said, ‘This is where we want to be,’” said Babboni. He said Nena Whitfield was not ready to be interviewed.
Dan Whitfield persuaded Eberle to let him work remotely, but he had to travel to the company headquarters twice a month, Babboni said. They had a second daughter, Magnolia, in 2018 and moved to St. Petersburg the following year. Their third child, Zora, turned 1 last month.
Whitfield’s first novel, “Eagle Ascending,” was published last year. The book is a thriller about a New York cop investigating a deadly bombing of a Jewish museum who learns that his own grandfather, an infamous Nazi general, is connected to the crime. Whitfield had finished his second novel and it’s set to be released next year.
The morning of the crash, Nena Whitfield found it odd that Dan didn’t send his customary text message reporting that he’d made it onto the plane and was about to take off, Babboni said. Then, a state trooper showed up at their door.
In a public Facebook post a week later, Nena Whitfield reminisced about how Dan bought her flowers every time he went to the supermarket.
“I can still hear him coming back from the store and saying ‘Hello, Gorgeous!’ with his ‘bump ‘n’ dent’ finds and pickled beetroot,” she wrote. “And he loved when I made fun of him for these random quirks, which made our lives so fun.”
In another public Facebook post in early August, Nena Whitfield said she was “somewhere between the depression and acceptance stages of grief because how can you not be depressed if you accept the fact that Dan is gone.”
She typed that he was not “the live fast, die young type.” He ate vegetables, worked out most days and took supplements. He was “such a good boy,” she wrote, so how could this happen?
The obituary for Carson, the Uber driver, says she sought a life of adventure.
An Illinois native, Carson enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, became a linguist and was stationed in California, Maryland and South Korea. After the Air Force, she worked for the government and later owned a coffee shop. She traveled and lived all over the world, eventually settling in St. Pete.
The obituary called her strong, smart, funny and kind. She loved the outdoors and enjoyed scuba diving, skydiving and skiing with family and friends. She could carry on a conversation with anyone she met, the notice said.
“Most of all she had a positive outlook on life that she did her best to pass on to all of those around her,” the obituary said.
One of Carson’s three children is a minor and was 16 at the time the complaint was filed, according to the lawsuit.
Roger Alex, Carson’s partner and the representative of her estate, and Alex’s attorney, Brian Elstein, declined to comment for this story. Messages left with other members of Carson’s family were not returned.
‘He dropped his cellphone’
The sun was shining on a clear morning by the time Carson stopped for a line of traffic on the exit ramp known for frequent backups.
Howard E. Hientzelmeier, 51 at the time, was behind them in a 2021 Dodge Ram. The pickup was a company vehicle for Hientzelmeier’s employer, Sunrun, a solar panel company, according to the wrongful death complaints.
The pickup crashed into the back of the Camry, spinning the car around and propelling it into the concrete barrier and a traffic sign, according to a preliminary Highway Patrol crash report. The Dodge then crashed into the back of a Hyundai sedan, causing chain reaction rear-end collisions involving three other vehicles.
Paramedics pronounced Whitfield and Carson dead at 7:14 a.m.
Hientzelmeier told troopers that “he dropped his cellphone onto the floorboard and was trying to locate it” at the time of the crash, according to the report. The report states Hientzelmeier operated the truck in a “careless or negligent manner” but he has not been cited or criminally charged because a traffic homicide investigation is still underway, said Sgt. Steve Gaskins, a spokesperson for the Highway Patrol.
Carson’s attorney filed a wrongful death lawsuit on Aug. 4, Whitfield’s on Aug. 17. Both complaints claim Hientzelmeier was negligent and that Sunrun is also liable as his employer. Both estates seek jury trials and unspecified damages.
Hientzelmeier did not return voicemail and text messages seeking comment. An attorney representing Sunrun Inc., Cheryl Wilke, declined to comment.
According to state data, distracted driving crashes resulted in 333 deaths in 2021 — the highest recorded in Florida in at least eight years. There were on average more than 1,000 distracted driving crashes every week in the state last year.
Federal officials see distracted driving as a public health threat and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention dedicates a page to the issue on its website.
In the United States last year, more than 3,100 people were killed and about 424,000 were injured in crashes involving a distracted drivers, federal data shows. Between 2010 and 2019, about 3,000 people were killed annually in distracted driver-involved crashes, a rate of nearly 1 person each day.
In April, the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles and the Highway Patrol launched its Put It Down campaign to try to discourage drivers from fiddling with their phone or other distractions while behind the wheel.
“I think these horrific tragedies are going to continue because it just doesn’t seem like people are getting the message or that it’s resonating,” Babboni said.