DADE CITY — A 46-year-old man and his infant nephew both died Sunday after being swept beneath the waters of the Withlacoochee River, authorities said, when the parked pickup they were sitting in suddenly rolled into the river.
The man was holding his 7-month-old nephew and sitting on the truck's open tailgate, authorities said, while the rear of the truck faced down into the river below.
Then the pickup suddenly rolled down a steep embankment and toward the river itself, carrying the two into the water.
The man tried to jump from the pickup's tailgate with the baby, according to Pasco County Sheriff's Lt. Mike Jenkins. But instead the man ended up underwater, pinned beneath the truck.
"He panicked and was trying to save the child's life," Jenkins said.
Officials were still searching for the infant's body late Sunday night. But that search was complicated by darkness, strong river currents and the presence of alligators.
"There were a few out here when we responded," Jenkins said.
The emergency call came in at 6:30 p.m. Deputies did not identify the man or his nephew.
Deputies found the body of the man pinned beneath the half submerged truck about 30 minutes after the search began, according to Jenkins.
The incident started as a family outing for the uncle, his nephew and their relatives. The family had been at Withlacoochee River Park earlier in the day, but when it closed they moved to the river's edge for a picnic.
They parked the truck alongside the river and kept their food inside the pickup bed. They hadn't been there long when the truck began to move.
Finding himself being carried into the river by an out-of-control pickup, Jenkins said, the man apparently tried to leap from the tailgate as the truck rolled down and kept gaining momentum.
But the truck ended up toppling over the man as it hit the water, pinning him beneath the engine block, the lieutenant said.
That set off a frantic scene as family members and witnesses jumped into the river and tried to save them, authorities said, but they could not find him or the baby.
The sheriff's dive team and marine unit were called to help search for the missing child, Pasco sheriff's spokeswoman Melanie Snow said. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers were also dispatched to help.
The search unfolded where the river passes Ranch Road and Auton Road in rural east Pasco County. While a team of six divers worked around the area of the truck itself, a sheriff's boat and commission boat searched the Withlacoochee River. The commission also had alligator trappers on hand, just in case they were needed.
The pickup was pulled from the river around 10 p.m. More than 50 family, friends and onlookers watched as the search unfolded. The child's father was nearby when the incident took place. Deputies said the family did not wish to make a statement.
The investigation and the search were being conducted simultaneously late Sunday.
"We are talking to potential witnesses in the area," Snow said, "but at this point it appears the truck, by some reason we've yet to determine, became disengaged and rolled into the river."
Despite the difficult conditions, Snow said crews had no plans to call off their search for the infant.
"At this point we have no plan to call off the search," she said. "We'll keep searching until we find the baby."