Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. News

'He still had a lot to teach us.' Plant City man killed by helicopter rotor was grandfather and role model, his family says

TAMPA — At 72, Deodat Gangapersaud had already lived a long life. But the grandfather of eight planned to be around for many more years and family milestones.

"His parents lived well into their 90s and that was his goal," said his daughter Sharita Persaud, the youngest of five children. "The doctor told him he had the heart of a teenager."

On Thursday, the Plant City man was gone in an instant.

Gangapersaud and his son Ryan Persaud, 35, were heading north on 50th Street in a Chevrolet Silverado when a helicopter crashed just north of Palm River Road about 2:20 p.m.

A piece of the helicopter's rotor blade flew across the intersection and sliced through the windshield of the Silverado, striking Gangapersaud, who was siting in the passenger seat.

He was killed instantly, authorities said.

A day later, Gangapersaud's family were still trying to process the loss of their patriarch.

"For all of us, it's just very surreal," Sharita Persaud said Friday. "It's so out of the blue, so sudden."

Authorities say there were two people in the helicopter. Bryan Thomas Messick, 38, of Bradenton was piloting the 2019 Robinson R44 II helicopter when it experienced what authorities called catastrophic engine failure. Joshua James Wells, 21, of Pinellas Park, was a passenger. He was not injured.

Surveillance video captured by a nearby business shows the sleek blue four-seater dropping parallel to the southbound lanes of 50th Street just above a southbound semitrailer truck, then landing hard on the pavement.

As the copter slid to a stop, its main rotor blade struck a utility pole, snapping it like a toothpick. A piece of the blade broke off and landed in the cab of the Chevy pickup, investigators said.

"He really did about the best job you could do in this situation," Dan Boggs, an air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, told reporters at the scene. "I'm really proud of him."

Reached by phone Friday, Messick said he wasn't ready to talk about the crash. He is certified by the FAA as a commercial helicopter pilot and helicopter flight instructor, records show.

Though authorities identified Wells as the co-pilot, records show he is certified only as an airframe and powerplant mechanic. A woman who answered the door at an address listed for Wells confirmed he lived there and said he was declining to comment.

Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister said Messick was "highly trained" and the helicopter had just been serviced and was deemed to be functioning properly. But the investigation may focus, in part, on an incident involving the same helicopter five days earlier.

According to the FAA, a pilot of the helicopter reported "possible mechanical problems" during a flight Sunday. He was able to land safely at Geraci Airpark in Lutz. Only the pilot was aboard at the time. The FAA did not release a name. The agency is investigating that incident.

The helicopter is owned by BC Dental, Inc., FAA records show. The address listed for the company is in Fort Wayne, Ind. A company representative could not be reached for comment.

The retail price for a Robinson R44 II helicopter ranges from $481,000 to $519,000, according to the California-based company's web site.

Robinson has sent its own investigator to Florida to work with the NTSB and FAA, said Loretta Conley, a company spokeswoman. She said the company could not comment on a pending investigation.

"We're very sorry to hear about this loss of life," Conley said. "We feel the people's pain."

Thursday began as a typical day for Gangapersaud and his son Ryan, said Sharita Persaud, 27. They stopped at a grocery store on 50th Street and had just left for home when the crash happened.

"The groceries are probably still in the truck," she said.

Gangapersaud and his wife Grace were born in Guyana, a small country on the northeastern coast of South America. They married there in 1980, came to the United States with little and built a life here. Gangapersaud worked as a security guard at the World Bank in Washington, D.C. Grace worked as a bank teller.

They moved to Florida in 2005 after Gangapersaud retired. Drawn to the open spaces of east Hillsborough, they built a house on an acre and a half of land south of Plant City.

There was plenty of room for Deodat Gangapersaud to raise goats and plant a garden, where he nourished mango, papaya, peppers and okra. When holidays came around, the large family gravitated to the home, flying kites and lighting fireworks in the backyard.

Gangapersaud was the type of person who pulled strangers onto the dance floor, his daughter said. He made people laugh.

"He was just a happy person, the life of the party," Sharita said. "He was a man who could never stay still."

The middle of five siblings, Ryan Persaud lives in Dover and has his own telecommunications business. In a weary voice during a brief phone interview, Persaud said his dad taught him how to do trades like electrical work and plumbing, and how to be a role model for his own son, now nine.

"He took care of his family and always had great advice," Ryan Persaud said. "He still had a lot to teach us."

Times staff writers McKenna Oxenden and Carl Lisciandrello contributed to this report. Contact Tony Marrero at