FHP says mower had part in crash

Published November 16, 2006

GIBSONTON — A maintenance worker mowing after dark on Interstate 75 intruded into traffic, setting off Wednesday’s deadly collision between a car and a fully loaded gas tanker, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.

Franklin Scott Williamson, 28, president of Titan Lawn Services, was mowing hours after his required 4 p.m. stopping time, state officials say. Troopers say his slow-moving tractor was headed south in the inside lane, going about 30 miles an hour under the road’s minimum speed.

At 9 p.m., a car approached from behind, going the speed limit, 70 mph. The driver slammed on the brakes.
The car avoided the tractor but was rear-ended by a pickup truck behind it. The car veered sharply to the right, crashing into the side of a tanker truck, also headed south, with a full load of 9,000 gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel, troopers said.

The tanker pulled over, and driver Sarria R. Yury , 39, of Tampa climbed out. Moments later, the tanker and the car exploded. Fire crews could not save the car’s driver, and the fire burned for 41/2 hours, said Hillsborough Fire Rescue spokesman Ray Yeakley.

The crash halted traffic, and two people who suffered minor injuries were taken to a hospital, Yeakley said.

Reached at his home, Yury said his company asked him not to talk with reporters. He said he pulled off to the roadside after the collision and saw that the tanker was on fire.

“I got out quickly,” he said.

The car involved belongs to a Bradenton family, and the family has been notified, Trooper Larry Coggins said. But investigators are waiting for the medical examiner to identify the remains of the victim.

Coggins said no charges have been filed, and the investigation is ongoing.

Pickup driver Dennis Aaron said he saw the car’s brake lights ahead and tried to stop his truck, but it was too late.

Aaron, a golf course maintenance worker and dirt bike racer, and his girlfriend were headed home to Apollo Beach on Interstate 75 after celebrating his 18th birthday at a Hooters in Brandon. He said he drank tea.

Troopers say Aaron wasn’t speeding or tailgating when the car in front of him slammed on its brakes.

“It was just, like, instant,” Aaron said, recalling the crash Thursday.

As soon as Aaron rear-ended the car, he saw it veer into the tanker, he said.

Aaron wonders why Williamson was mowing so late and why he drove so slowly.

“At night, what can you mow at night?” Aaron said. “I didn’t even see him at all.”

That’s a question that wasn’t answered Thursday, said DOT spokeswoman Kris Carson.

Williamson’s company, Titan Lawn Services, is a subcontractor in charge of mowing I-75 in Hillsborough County.

Williamson is the company’s president, and he has had a contract for 31/2 months with Infrastructure Corporation of America, a Tennessee-based company that has a contract with DOT.

As part of the contract, Williamson agreed to mow only between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., unless he has written permission from the contractor, said ICA project manager David Buser.

“He was specifically excluded from working at night,” Buser said. “We’ve talked to him this morning and made sure he understands that’s a no-no.”

Subcontractors are not allowed to mow after dark because it’s difficult to see the grass, he said.

“We get a better quality job during the daylight,” Buser said.

Williamson also is required to follow state guidelines about the safety lights for his equipment.

“There’s no formal inspection unless there’s a reason to believe that something was really wrong,” Buser said. In

Williamson’s case, ICA had no reason to think there was a problem, he said.

Buser declined to discuss Williamson’s reasons for mowing that night.

“If it’s related to the crash, I don’t want to talk about it,” he said.

He did say that Williamson was not under a time crunch or behind schedule, and would keep the contract.

Williamson told officials he was driving in the median, not in the road, Carson said.

“His story was that he was actually not in the lane — the accident occurred after he was in the median, and he didn’t play a role in the accident at all,” she said.

Troopers disagree.

“He was definitely in the inside lane on the interstate,” Coggins said. “He was going to mow the medians.”

Pinpointing negligence in this case could be difficult, Tampa civil attorney Chris Knopik said.

The mower may have violated some basic state laws, which include driving at least 50 mph in a 70 mph zone and sticking to the right-hand lane when moving at slow speeds. The mower’s visibility could be an issue.

Knopik said any discussion also had to address the behavior of each driver. None of the vehicles involved in the wreck collided with the mower, he noted.

Steve Yerrid, another Tampa attorney, said driving too slow could be as risky as speeding.

“Anybody who drives on a Florida highway knows the danger of that,” he said. “If the vehicle is going too damn slow and people have no choice but to take evasive action and make an abrupt stop, then bad things can happen.”

Researcher John Martin and staff writer Colleen Jenkins contributed to this report. Abbie VanSickle can be reached at 226-3373 or vansickle@sptimes.com.