Crossing turns deadly

Published May 12, 2007

It was almost midnight on a dark road in Pasco County, a mile east of the Zephyrhills city limits, when Heather Eres pulled up to the railroad tracks.

Her 8-year-old son, Kevin Bryant, was in the seat next to her. They were on their way to Eres' mom's house in Wesley Chapel, where they'd been living since the fall. They had driven the 20-something miles out here Thursday night to visit Eres' youngest son, 3-year-old James, who lives part-time with another family. Eres' family members said she was supposed to pick up James and bring him home. They don't know why she didn't.

Now they're just glad he wasn't in the car.

It's lonely and black out here, on County Road 54 just east of Forbes Road; few cars on the road, all woods and quiet, the lights from town miles up ahead. As the CSX train sped past, the guardrail was down, the red lights flashing. Another car drove up fast behind Eres' Mitsubishi Montero.

Eli Alvarez, a 26-year-old Zephyrhills man driving a 2007 Toyota Tundra truck, slammed into the rear of the SUV.

The impact shoved Eres' car through the crossing gate and into the train, which had two locomotives and 52 rail cars. It had started its journey in Baldwin and was headed to Tampa with a shipment of automobiles for sale.

Her SUV crumpled against the 14th rail car and burst into flames.

A heroic passerby pulled Eres and Kevin from the burning, twisted metal. Kevin was dead. Eres was badly injured, as was Alvarez. Emergency workers and deputies showed up. The anonymous man then left before anyone could talk to him.

The Florida Highway Patrol would like to find him. Eres' family would, as well, to thank him. Anyone with information is asked to call Cpl. Kenny Ratcliff with the Highway Patrol toll-free at 1-800-235-6019.

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Kevin was a second-grade student at Quail Hollow Elementary School in Wesley Chapel. Crisis counselors talked with his classmates and teachers Friday. The students made cards for Kevin's family and talked about their memories of him. They said he was a leader and that he could run really fast.

Principal Michelle Berger said Kevin was a good boy and a good student. She pulled his teachers into her office as they arrived Friday morning and told them Kevin was dead. She said they could go home if they wanted to, but all of them stayed. It was better to grieve together, they said.

Alvarez's condition was not known. Charges are pending against him, said Larry Coggins, FHP spokesman. Coggins would not say what charges - or if alcohol or drug use is suspected. Investigators are waiting for lab results.

Alvarez moved here recently from North Carolina. But the address given for him in Zephyrhills is a vacant duplex. A neighbor said no one has lived there for a month.

As of Friday evening, Eres was still at St. Joseph's Hospital. Her lung is punctured, her left orbital bone fractured, as well as several other bones in her body. She has cuts all over - and a deep one across her chest, her heart. She is still unconscious.

She does not know her son is dead.

Erin Sullivan can be reached at esullivan@sptimes.com or 813 909-4609. Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.