An injured father fears for his son. Just then, he feels the boy begin his rescue.
By CURTIS KRUEGER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 1, 2003
ST. PETERSBURG -- Robert "Butch" Ovens remembers slamming on the brakes and his SUV going into a roll.
The next thing he recalls is floating in the chilly seawater off the Sunshine Skyway bridge, a terrifying question in his mind:
Oh my God, where's my son?
As he struggled in the darkness, he heard his son nearby.
"Hunter started screaming at me to wake up in the water," Ovens said Friday from his hospital bed.
Ovens was bleeding from his back and thought his leg was broken. His son managed to pull him to a concrete platform under the bridge, but couldn't hoist him up onto the concrete and out of the 55-degree water.
Ovens drifted in and out of consciousness as Hunter repeatedly yelled at him to stay awake.
Suddenly, help came from above. A motorist who had stopped on the bridge lowered a garden hose, which Hunter wrapped around his father and used to pull him onto the concrete.
"He laid on top of me to keep me warm," Ovens said, fighting back tears. "I was colder then hell, I know that. The whole time, he just kept saying 'Dad, wake up, wake up,' " Ovens said.
Hunter couldn't be reached Friday.
Ovens, 45, who lives in Bradenton, drives over the Skyway three times a week to take Hunter to AAU baseball practice in St. Petersburg.
On Thursday night, the two had left practice and driven over the hump of the Skyway. Hunter, 14, an eighth-grader who goes to school in Sarasota, was sitting in the passenger seat and studying for a history test.
At the south end of the bridge, Ovens pulled left to pass a slower-moving Corvette in front of him. But the Corvette also pulled into the left lane, he said. Ovens slammed the brakes to avoid a collision. The wheels locked and the SUV overturned, he said.
Witnesses told the Florida Highway Patrol that they saw the Chevrolet Tahoe hurtling off the bridge and into the 29-foot-deep water.
In an interview Friday at Bayfront Medical Center, Ovens said he doesn't remember what happened after the first roll of the SUV. He just remembers finding himself in the water beside his son.
Somehow Hunter got his father to the concrete platform at the base of the bridge, Ovens said.
Soon after, the driver of the recreational vehicle pulled over and lowered the garden hose, helping Hunter hoist his father atop the concrete platform.
They waited there until rescuers arrived.
Firefighters from the St. Petersburg Fire Department rappelled down to begin medical treatment. The U.S. Coast Guard also assisted.
The two were transported to Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg, where Hunter was evaluated and released. Ovens was still in the hospital Friday in good condition, with injuries to his leg, hip, pelvis and shoulder.
Ovens, a product manager for World Precision Instruments in Sarasota, said he will continue driving over the Skyway to take his son to baseball practice, but "I'll drive a lot more different though. More cautious."
Although he said he wasn't ready to blame the accident on his SUV -- a vehicle type criticized as top-heavy and prone to flip -- he's thinking of switching back to a pickup truck.
Ovens said he has told his sons all their lives: never quit, never give up. During his ordeal Thursday, he lived his own advice.
"I've got a gorgeous wife ... a 21-year-old son. I just wasn't ready to let go of them. I'm 45. I just wasn't wasn't ready to die."
And Hunter must have remembered that advice too, he said.
"He wasn't going to let his old man die," Ovens said.
"If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be here."