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Power line that killed cyclist may have been down for 10 hours

TAMPA

A downed power line that electrocuted a bicyclist Wednesday along the Courtney Campbell Causeway may have dangled for as many as 10 hours over a public path before dawn delivered a victim.

Gregory Patterson, a 47-year-old father and wildlife officer recently heralded for saving lives, died when he came into contact with the wire about 6:40 a.m., Tampa police said.

Some seven hours earlier, at 10:50 p.m. Tuesday, a manager at nearby Whiskey Joe's Bar & Grill called Tampa Electric Co. to report a partial outage, restaurant manager Marty Duffany said.

A fierce thunderstorm that pounded the region had knocked out power in parts of the restaurant about 8:30 p.m., Duffany said. The restaurant first called a private electrician and then Tampa Electric, he said.

He and his staff were stunned to wake up to the news that a bicyclist had been electrocuted right outside their restaurant.

"It's really upsetting that happened," Duffany said. "We did our part. Why weren't they out here looking at it last night when we called?"

Cherie Jacobs, a Tampa Electric spokeswoman, said the incident was still under investigation Wednesday but confirmed the company received a report of a partial outage at Whiskey Joe's at 10:50 p.m.

Jacobs also confirmed the company received at least one report of streetlights out along the Courtney Campbell Causeway. Crews were scrambling to restore power to about 14,000 customers, so it's possible the downed line, which carries 7,620 volts, was down for 10 hours and that workers simply didn't get to it in time.

"We're looking at that timeline," she said. "It's definitely something we want to get to the bottom of."

•••

Patterson had a work meeting Wednesday morning, but the bike ride had to come first.

Exercise was his morning ritual, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Maj. Roger Young told reporters Wednesday.

"He was a very avid physical fitness activist," Young said. "He was in outstanding shape."

Patterson had "become addicted to triathlon" according to his profile page on iamtri.com. For a while, at least, he had dreams of "reaching Kona," a reference to the legendary Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii.

Photos on the page show Patterson hunched over his bike, his legs and arms thick as tree trunks and bulging under Lycra.

Patterson was supposed to meet Young at 10 a.m. Before dawn, Patterson left his South Tampa apartment and pedaled his high-end Blue road bike onto the paved recreational path along the causeway. A safe haven away from zooming traffic, the trail extends from Clearwater to Tampa and is a popular among cyclists and runners.

It was unclear Wednesday which direction Patterson was riding when he came into contact with the power line. It was also unclear if he ran over the line or snagged it as it dangled.

The downed wire was still in contact with Patterson's body when Tampa Fire Rescue crews arrived about 6:45 a.m., so Tampa Electric workers were called to turn off the power. When rescue workers were able to approach Patterson, he was dead, police said.

His body and the bicycle, covered by a pink sheet, were still lying on the side of the trail when Joey Adams, a 50-year-old Clearwater cyclist on his morning ride, rolled up to the scene.

"My first reaction was that could have been me," Adams said. "I just paused for a minute and grieved because if he suits up and grinds on any type of bike, I feel like I knew him, in a way."

•••

Diners were in the middle of their meals at Whiskey Joe's when the thunderstorm rolled in and power went out to parts of the restaurant, said Duffany, the manager.

The air conditioning and venting hoods in the kitchen stopped working, so the restaurant had to close early. A manager called an electrician, who said a Tampa Electric outage was to blame. The manager dialed Tampa Electric's outage line and provided information when prompted by an automated menu, Duffany said.

About the same time, Phil Compton of Tampa was making a terrifying drive across a darkened, nine-mile stretch of the causeway. On his way home from St. Petersburg, Compton struggled to see as rain pummelled his windshield. The traffic lights were working, but half the cars on the road had pulled off to the side to wait out the rain, Compton said.

"I was thinking, 'Did I turn off of (State Road0 60 somewhere?' There were no lights anywhere."

Jacobs, the Tampa Electric spokeswoman, said the company sets priorities when dealing with a large number of outage calls.

"We restore power to things that are vital to the community like hospitals, fire stations and traffic lights and then work our way down through other outages," she said.

There is technology in the early stages of development that alerts utilities when a power line is down, but it's not yet widely used in the industry, Jacobs said. There also is no technology that would automatically kill power in to a downed line, she said.

The city's 911 call center has no record of downed power lines reported either Tuesday or Wednesday, Tampa police spokesman Stephen Hegarty said. Dispatchers took two reports at 6:42 a.m. Wednesday that traffic lights were flashing in the area of Ben T. Davis Beach and a nearby boat ramp, he said. That was about the time Patterson came in contact with the wire.

The power came back on at Whiskey Joe's about 12:20 p.m., Duffany said, a few hours after a medical van pulled away carrying Patterson's body.

•••

Patterson served in the U.S. Navy and worked for a truck company before joining the wildlife commission in December 2011. He graduated from the FWC Academy the following June.

Young, the FWC major, said community outreach was what drove Patterson to join the agency relatively late in life. He also enjoyed leading youth hunting and fishing courses.

"Service was just in Greg's blood," Young said. "That's what he did."

In 2014, Patterson and another officer were patrolling Tampa Bay during high winds when they rescued an exhausted kayaker who had been in the water for hours clinging to his overturned vessel and was being swept out to sea, according to the agency. Patterson was awarded the FWC Lifesaving Award for his actions.

On Saturday, Patterson and fellow FWC Officer Richard Dearborn responded to a call about a capsized jet ski. Three people were struggling in the water near the Gandy Bridge and were being carried by the current, according to Tampa police.

As police officers worked to keep the trio from drifting away, Patterson jumped in to help the person who was struggling the most. Officers helped all three people into the boat and they were taken to shore to be checked out by paramedics.

Tampa police officials were in the process of nominating him for the department's lifesaving award for his efforts.

Heather Hunter, Patterson's former wife, said his two daughters are devastated.

The girls, ages 12 and 14, enjoyed watching their dad give presentations during the Great American Teach-In, Hunter said. Patterson would bring alligators, owls and opossums to expose the kids to Florida wildlife.

He last saw the girls on Thursday. The trio went out to lunch and then to the mall to buy school supplies.

"He loved his daughters a lot," Hunter said.

Friends and colleagues seemed comforted by one thing: Patterson died in the saddle, doing what he loved.

Times senior news researcher John Martin and staff writers Justine Griffin, Dennis Joyce and Patty Ryan contributed to this report. Contact Tony Marrero at tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

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