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Two Hillsborough teenagers dead after car plunges off Courtney Campbell

Crews pull a car from the bay after it crashed through a guard rail beneath the Courtney Campbell Causeway bridge on Friday.
Crews pull a car from the bay after it crashed through a guard rail beneath the Courtney Campbell Causeway bridge on Friday.
Published Aug. 1, 2015

TAMPA — Two teenagers died early Friday after their car plunged into the water off the Courtney Campbell Causeway.

Tampa police said Rishi Martinez, 18, and Gyzelle Diaz, 14, both of Hillsborough County, and Naeve Duarte, 14, who was visiting from California, were in a black Toyota Camry that crashed through the guard rail on a service road underneath the bridge about 5 a.m.

Police said alcohol may have been a factor in the crash.

Juan Ocasia, 63, of Tampa said he was fishing nearby when he heard a loud crash. He said he turned around, saw a mangled guard rail where the road curved and watched the car sail through the air into the water.

Ocasia called 911 and then dove into the water with his dog Diesel. It was dark, he said, but he followed the car's headlights. He found that Duarte had freed herself from the car.

Ocasia said Duarte wanted to stay with Martinez and Diaz, but he and the teenager had to swim back to shore.

"I tried to open the door, but I couldn't do nothing," Ocasia said. "The car was already sinking, so I was swimming back."

After Ocasia helped Duarte out of the water, he said, he went back in to try to pull out Martinez and Diaz. But the car was fully submerged.

"I couldn't see the light anymore," he said.

Neither could the Tampa police officers who responded to the crash.

A full moon gave some illumination above the chop on the water, said Cory Schumacher, a Tampa Fire Rescue captain and diver who got the call while sleeping at the station around 5:30 a.m.

Ten minutes later, he was 15 feet below the surface, where the moon didn't shine, and his flashlight offered 8 inches of visibility, 10 at most, he said. It was all hand work from there.

The car was upside down, its rear end sunk into mud and seashells, making access difficult, he said. The sides of the car didn't feel too mangled, but the roof was smashed in, he added.

He didn't know he was looking for teenagers.

"I have a 14-year-old daughter, so as soon as I found out that information it really affects you greatly because I know how I would feel if it happened to me," Schumacher said. "It's devastating."

All three teenagers were transported to St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa, where Martinez and Diaz were pronounced dead.

The two victims lived on the same street in Carefree Village, a mobile home park in Town 'N Country.

Reached by phone Friday, Martinez's father, Eduardo de Leon, 50, said he was still waiting for a full explanation of how the crash occurred, but it was his understanding that his son was the driver.

He said the teenager had driven to St. Petersburg to pick up Diaz, a friend of his, and was on his way back home.

"We are in shock," he said. "He was a great kid. We never had any problems with him."

Records show that Martinez did have one arrest, a charge of resisting an officer without violence on July 18 in Ybor City. The police report said Martinez had consumed alcohol that night.

Claudia De Leon, 42, knew her son was a social drinker. Her message was always the same: "Be careful, stay safe."

Flanked by her daughters and sons, she stood Friday afternoon on the family's front porch while raindrops fell from the rooftop and neighbors cried on the lawn next door.

She remembered her son as strong, well-liked and a baseball fan, who dreamed of becoming a police officer after his senior year at Alonso High School. "He was a good boy," she repeated. "A good brother."

She walked inside, returning with a scrapbook, the word "familia" written across the front. Inside was a photo of last year's birthday cake, white with blue frosting. A Christmas selfie of Rishi and his siblings. And one of him as a baby, pouting during a costume contest in Mexico, his birthplace.

Near the end of the book there was nothing. That's where his graduation photos would have gone.

He was supposed to have them taken Friday morning.

Staff writer Anne Steele and researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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