Tree limb hanging over Tampa utility line snaps, killing Hudson driver

William Vantassel of Hudson was killed Thursday morning when he drove his car into a fallen branch, deputies said. [Courtesy of Carmen Lopez]
William Vantassel of Hudson was killed Thursday morning when he drove his car into a fallen branch, deputies said. [Courtesy of Carmen Lopez]
Published Jun. 15, 2017

TAMPA — The Montgomery family says they complained a year ago about the heavy oak branches hanging over utility lines outside their home on Orient Road.

In a freak accident early Thursday morning, one branch finally snapped just as 36-year-old William Vantassel of Hudson was driving by in the dark, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office said.

Vantassel died when his 2015 Nissan Altima collided with the limb as it dangled above the road from utility lines.

"He must not have seen it," said Chris Montgomery, who lives in the home at the corner of Orient Road and Deleuil Avenue.

His father, Richard Montgomery, called 911 about 3:45 a.m. when he noticed the branch had fallen onto the utility lines, Chris Montgomery said. Vantassel drove by just over five minutes later while Montgomery was still on the phone with an emergency operator.

The hood of the Altima cleared the dangling branch but the roof was crushed as the car continued moving.

"It looked like it was tin-canned," said Carmen Lopez, who also lives at the Montgomery home.

Chris Montgomery said he thinks heavy rain over the past week accelerated rotting at the base of the branch.

A woman who answered William Vantassel's phone Thursday said no one was available to speak.

Vantassel's Facebook page indicates he has two daughters, enjoyed power lifting and worked as a truck driver with US Foods, a national food wholesaler with a location near the scene of the accident.

"Our deepest sympathies are with the Vantassel family and everyone touched by this tragedy," US Foods said in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times. "Billy was a valued and respected part of the US Foods family. We are all deeply sadden by this news."

It remained unclear Thursday who was responsible for trimming branches near the utility lines.

The pole that carried the lines is owned by Tampa Electric, but the lines that caught the falling limb is fiber Spectrum cable lines owned by Charter Communications, Charter spokesman Joseph Durkin said.

The lines never fell and employees rehung them by 8 a.m. Thursday, Durkin said. Because they don't carry power, he said, there was no danger of electrocution.

The Spectrum lines hang on the Tampa Electric "joint-use" pole alongside others owned by utility providers, Cherie Jacobs, Tampa Electric spokeswoman, said in an email.

"Our investigation shows that Tampa Electric's power lines were not involved in this morning's tragic accident," Jacobs said. "Our troubleman was called to the scene, but our equipment was not involved, and he made no repairs."

Tampa Electric employees visited the site in 2014 after the Montgomery family called about the potentially hazardous branch, she said. Ultimately, the utility decided the branch didn't put any company-owned property in danger.

Joint use utility poles can hold as many as five additional lines owned by different utility companies, said J.B. Shepherd, an electrical engineer in Bushnell. Typically, those companies would all shoulder the responsibility for maintaining trees around the pole — an arrangement that would be spelled out in a joint use agreement.

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All have to answer to the Florida Public Service Commission and should be held accountable for maintaining their property, Shepherd said.

"If any of these other companies became aware of a potential danger," he said, "they have a duty to correct it."

Contact Paul Guzzo at Follow @pguzzotimes