tampabay.com

Surprisingly, he came out alive

Rescue workers see the flattened Cadillac and assume the worst, but the driver escapes with a few broken bones.

By MICHAEL A. MOHAMMED
Published October 6, 2006


TAMPA - Harold Collins was driving back from Wal-Mart to his Thonotosassa ranch at dawn on a pleasant Thursday.

All of a sudden, a semitrailer truck loaded with 15,000 pounds of nuts, bolts and hardware crushed him hard enough to fracture his collarbone, sternum and spine. Collins, 74, survived a painful half-hour waiting for rescuers to free him from his flattened car.

"It came from behind, and I couldn't see it coming," Collins said Thursday evening from his bed at Tampa General Hospital. "The pain was intense."

Collins was one of eight drivers caught up in a violent chain reaction when an 18-wheeler barrelled down an Interstate 4 off-ramp to Mango Road, ran a red light and rolled onto its side while attempting to turn.

When the trailer hit the Cadillac, "It was like a piece of tin, like a bug got squashed," said Simona Hoy, whose car sustained minor damage in the crash.

A registered nurse, Hoy got out of her car and checked on most of the injured - but couldn't bring herself to approach the Cadillac. "I thought, oh my God, I don't even want to walk up to that."

Rescuers quickly helped the other drivers, but had to call the county's Brandon-based heavy rescue team to open the stifling cage that Collins' car had become.

"It was unbelievable," said Capt. Mike Benitez, head of the team that saved Collins' life. "The car was so mangled ... you couldn't even tell it was a Cadillac."

The car was so badly crushed, Benitez said, that when the first paramedics arrived they left Collins' car for last, knowing he would be the hardest to get to and the least likely to be alive.

When Benitez got there, he knew he had a challenge on his hands. The trailer was close to crushing Collins completely, and the precarious wreck could shift as the team tried to cut him loose.

"He was conscious, and he was real worried about the truck smashing the car even more," Benitez said.

First, the team tried to cut the top off the Cadillac and make a hole wide enough to get Collins out, but no luck.

Not with the weight of a semitrailer truck on top.

So they went with Plan B: enlisting a jumbo wrecker crane to lift it off the car.

"We didn't choose to do it at first, because you're lifting thousands of pounds and anything could break," he said.

But the beaten up trailer held, and lifted enough for the team to widen the gap another foot. They slid a stretcher in, secured Collins' spine on a backboard, and slid him out to a waiting ambulance.

Benitez rarely sees survivors in wrecks this bad.

"I've been doing this ... for 15-plus years," he said. "The majority of people in cars mangled like this did not come out like Mr. Collins."

The wreck was so violent, it might have been hard to believe Collins was the worst one hurt. In a pileup that totalled five vehicles and damaged another three, only two people other than Collins were transported to hospitals; both were released before the end of the day.

Authorities have not charged the semitrailer truck driver, Kim Henry of Illinois, with wrongdoing pending an investigation of the truck, said Florida Highway Patrol spokesman Larry Coggins.

Collins was in fair condition at the hospital Thursday night, but said he was in severe pain from his injuries. Doctors worried about his heart, because he had a heart attack five years ago, and about 7 p.m. they moved him to a critical care unit to better monitor his cardiac health.

Collins, a retired orange grower, once owned six semitrailer trucks to carry his fruit. Earlier this year, he sold a horse farm for more than $2.1-million.

In July 2005, Collins was arrested on charges of driving under the influence, possession of a controlled substance, and violation of a restricted license. He is scheduled to go on trial in Tampa for those charges later this month. His attorney, Tom Fox, said Collins was driving legally on Thursday morning.

Benitez, the head of the heavy rescue team, thinks Collins may owe his survival to his big Cadillac Coupe de Ville.

"I'm a true believer in big cars. If he'd been in a small or midsize car, I think he'd be dead," Benitez said.

Collins said he has been a Cadillac devotee all his life, except for a flirtation with stock cars in his youth that ended with a nasty scar on his arm.

But he also mentioned his lifelong devotion to weightlifting, which he said keeps him in great shape. The night before the crash, he had worked out for the first time in two weeks.

"I thought I would be sore from that," he said, "but not like this."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Michael A. Mohammed can be reached at mmohammed@sptimes.com or 813 226-3404.