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Police, fire heroes honored for excellence

TAMPA — Last June 14, Hills­borough Reserve Firefighter John Fragomeni was driving on Interstate 75 to repair an irrigation system in Apollo Beach. He was already running late when a flatbed truck he was trailing began to spew smoke, then suddenly disappeared from view.

Fragomeni, who was off duty, says he came to a stop exactly where he lost sight of the truck and realized it must have plunged off the bridge that crossed the Alafia River dozens of feet below.

"My first thought was that he wasn't alive," Fragomeni said of the truck driver.

But then he and Hillsborough sheriff's Deputy Philip Merkle, who had also stopped, saw the driver moving inside the cab, which had come to rest in mud. They slid down the embankment, forded through the marsh and hailed a boater who had heard the crash.

They extricated the driver from the cab, and the boat carried the driver to an ambulance waiting onshore.

Fragomeni said he and Merkle had not heard from the driver since then. They knew he had survived, but nothing more.

But when he and Merkle were honored Wednesday as the Hills­borough Country Volunteer Firefighter and Law Enforcement Deputy of the Year, they got a message from the driver, Jeffery Cook, who thanked them for saving his life and giving him more time to spend with his family.

"I had never witnessed an accident like that," Fragomeni said. "I thank God every day that I was there and he was okay."

Fragomeni and Merkle were among the 17 Hillsborough first responders recognized at the luncheon, held at the Tampa Convention Center. The paramedics, firefighters and law enforcement officers honored during the 20th anniversary of the event were hailed for actions ranging from delivering a baby on the side of the highway to raising $40,000 for the Special Olympics.

Noting a Tuesday night drug raid in Seminole Heights that resulted in the fatal shooting of a suspected marijuana dealer, Mayor Bob Buckhorn reminded the audience that "there's no such thing as a routine search warrant" or a "routine traffic stop."

Fragomeni, however, has not been dissuaded. After seven years as a volunteer firefighter, he still hopes to pursue a full-time job with Hillsborough County Fire Rescue.

Victoria Jacobsen can be reached at or (813) 661-2442.