TAMPA — Long before the sun rose Friday morning, Gene Fischer set out from his home in San Antonio for his regular commute to his post as a security guard in Tampa.
About 5:25 a.m., his boss said, Fischer called the guard he would be relieving with a request: Put on the coffee. He'd be there soon.
Moments later, Fischer steered his GMC Envoy onto the southbound exit ramp from Interstate 275 heading into downtown where he collided head-on with an Acura TL heading north in the left lane, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.
Fischer, 65, died at the scene, troopers said. So did the Acura's driver, 47-year-old Larry Lorenza Thompson of Tampa.
Both men were fathers and Air Force veterans. Neither was wearing a seatbelt, said Sgt. Steve Gaskins, spokesman for the Highway Patrol.
Just prior to the collision, a silver Acura TL, believed to be Thompson's, went up the Howard Avenue exit ramp to go north on southbound I-275, said Florida Department of Transportation spokeswoman Kris Carson. The sedan caused a road ranger who was getting off the exit ramp to swerve out of the way.
But investigators don't know what Thompson did between the near miss on the Howard Avenue ramp and the crash on the downtown exit ramp two miles away.
"From the Howard exit ramp, there's no way (Thompson) could have ended up where he ended up without getting off and getting back on again in the wrong direction," Carson said.
It remained unclear Friday where Thompson got off the interstate and if he got onto the downtown exit ramp at Ashley Street, Jefferson Street or Doyle Carlton Drive, Gaskins said.
"We had a whole team of engineers there looking at maps, trying to figure it out," Carson said.
Flashing lights that stop wrong-way drivers from entering exit ramps were not installed on the Howard exit ramp, she said.
Investigators were waiting for toxicology results to find out if drugs or alcohol were involved.
In a 911 call to Tampa Fire Rescue, a man at the scene of the crash told an operator that both drivers appeared unconscious and trapped in their vehicles.
"Ma'am, I got to get this guy out of here because … ," the caller says, trailing off. A moment later he tells the operator there is gasoline on the ground.
"I have a pulse on one of 'em," he says as a police officer arrives.
The front of the Acura had crumbled like an accordion and Fischer's SUV came to rest on its side. The ramp, closed after the crash, reopened about 10:30 a.m.
A spate of horrific wrong-way crashes on highways in the Tampa Bay area killed 16 people in 2014 and drew national headlines. A Tampa Bay Times review of FHP crash data showed that wrong-way crashes are surprisingly common and that drunken driving is often a factor.
The violent collision left two mourning families struggling to understand what happened.
"Why the hell would he be going the wrong way?" wondered Thompson's brother, Chris Thompson of Houston, Texas. "He should have been on his way to work."
A native of Cottonton, Ala., Thompson had lived in Tampa since the late 1990s, his brother said. He served in the Air Force for about 22 years, 13 of them active and the rest in the reserves. He was working as an administrator in the 6th Medical Group at MacDill Air Force Base, his brother said. A MacDill official cited a U.S. Department of Defense policy prohibiting comment until 24 hours after an employee's family has been notified.
The second-youngest of seven children, Thompson had two adult children, a third in her teens and a baby girl born to a girlfriend two weeks ago, Chris Thompson said. He described his brother as smart, compassionate and ambitious. He drank alcohol only occasionally.
"He was a great brother and a great father, always willing to help anybody who needed it," Thompson said.
According to Fischer's family, the two men had those qualities in common.
His son, Mike Fischer, 37, also of San Antonio, said his dad never knew a stranger and loved to make people laugh.
"He'd be the one who would make this okay," his son said.
A native of Queens, N.Y., Gene Fischer graduate from Saint Leo College in the late 1960s and enlisted in the Air Force, said his sister, Gina Fischer. He served for 16 years, including a five-year stint in England.
Gene Fischer and his wife Rita would have celebrated their 45th wedding anniversary this year. They have one son and two teenage granddaughters. Fischer doted on his granddaughters, cheering them on at soccer games and science fairs, his sister said.
He had worked in the security field for nearly two decades. About five years ago, Fischer joined CBM Services Group, a commercial building maintenance company with an office on Kennedy Boulevard. As director of security, he helped build up the division and managed the day-to-day operations, said branch manager Dave Spargur.
"He was very instrumental to our operations here," he said.
With plans to retire soon, Fischer recently took an assignment as a security officer for the Tampa Housing Authority, Spargur said.
Mike Fischer said he and his family are withholding judgment on Thompson until they see the toxicology reports.
"If this is a case of drunk driving, then we're angry," he said. "But if it's a mistake, how can I be angry? And there's another family going through what we're going through right now."