Crash inquiry focusing on tires
By LEANORA MINAI, Times Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG -- Barreling up Interstate 275, the red dump truck was a ticking time bomb.
The tread on the left front tire had been replaced. Some of the other tires were bald, investigators said.
The left front tire blew, causing a crash Tuesday that killed three people, including Joseph Brown, the 60-year-old St. Petersburg man who was behind the wheel of the Ford truck.
Brown didn't own the rig he called Big Red. He drove it for another man who paid him to haul debris, relatives said.
"I told him, 'You need to stop driving those raggedy trucks. Those people don't care nothing about you,' " said Patrice Johnson, 42, Brown's partner of 27 years and the mother of three of his seven children.
She said Brown always would reply:
"I'm doing this because I need to make sure my children are happy."
Brown has been cited six times since 1996 for operating a vehicle with defective equipment, such as broken brake lights, according to the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
The Florida Highway Patrol, which is investigating the rush-hour collision near 26th Avenue S, will send the blown tire to a state crime lab for analysis.
The FHP, which is focusing on the heat of the asphalt and condition of the truck's tires, said excessive speed was not a factor in the crash.
No criminal charges have been filed, but the owner of the dump truck will be interviewed about its condition, said FHP spokesman Lt. Sterling King.
"It's a possibility he's going to have to answer to it if that truck wasn't in the right condition," King said.
King said the 1997 dump truck is registered to Richard D. Lewis, 32, at a truck lot at 4636 Freemont Terr. S, formerly Bill Williams Machine Shop.
Workers at the St. Petersburg truck lot refused to comment Wednesday and told a reporter to leave the property.
Tuesday's crash also killed Glenn M. Johnson, 38, and Joseph Ryder, 23, two Georgia men in Florida on telecommunications business, company associates said.
Brown was driving the dump truck north on I-275 in the left lane at 5 p.m. when its left front tire blew out, the FHP said. The truck veered across the grassy median and struck a southbound 2001 Ford van carrying the men from Georgia. The dump truck burst into flames.
Johnson, a technician for Lexus Cabling Corp. in Atlanta, was a father of three and installed computer systems for Wal-Mart, among other companies.
"He always represented us very well," said Suzanne Hosea, chief financial officer of Lexus Cabling. "I could call him in the middle of the night if a register was down in Wal-Mart and he'd go."
Johnson, whose nickname was "Trubble Phunk," also owned Caustic Entertainment Group, a hip-hop recording company in Atlanta.
The only survivor of Tuesday's crash was St. Petersburg resident Cleveron Ferguson, 25, the passenger in the dump truck. Through family members, Ferguson declined to comment Wednesday.
The FHP said Wednesday that the left front tire on the dump truck Brown was driving was "recapped." Recapping is retreading a tire -- grinding the worn rubber off the casing and molding a new slab of rubber around the tire casing. It costs as little as half the price of a new tire and must be done by a licensed shop.
"It's really not safe to have recaps on the dump truck," said King, the FHP spokesman. "If you don't have enough air in them, they're subject to separate, especially with heated conditions."
The recapped tire was on the steering axle, which some automotive experts said is not safe. When the tire blew, Brown lost the ability to control and steer the truck, the FHP said.
"That's going to take you right to the left until some other forces meet and stop you," King said.
The FHP has not determined the brand of the tire that blew, King said.
State law does not prohibit recapped tires on dump trucks, said Capt. Ken Carr, of the Florida Department of Transportation's Motor Carrier Compliance Office. However, recapped tires are not allowed on buses.
The FHP said Wednesday that other tires on the dump truck were bald and that by law, commercial trucks must have a certain level of tread.
Brown, the dump truck driver, got his hauling jobs from St. Petersburg resident Cleveland Ferguson, 51, a worker who would not comment Wednesday at the St. Petersburg truck lot.
Records show that Cleveron Ferguson, the dump truck passenger who survived, has the same address as Cleveland Ferguson.
-- Times researcher Kitty Bennett and staff writers Mike Brassfield and Rick Danielson contributed to this report.
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