I-4 crash survivor feared the worst

When the smoke blinded trucker Rudy Garcia, his first thought was of his stepdad.

By ALEXANDRA ZAYAS, Times Staff Writer
Published January 15, 2008

TAMPA - A curtain of smoke fell on Rudy Garcia's truck, blinding him on Interstate 4 that morning as he drove his route from Tampa to Orlando. He crashed. Then, he heard the explosions.

All the 33-year-old could think of was his stepfather and fellow trucker, 51-year-old Jorge Fundora, who took off earlier than he did on the same truck route, relatives said. Garcia reached for his phone.

At their home in West Tampa, his 29-year-old brother Rosny Garcia heard his stepfather's phone ring. He had left it behind. Rosny said he picked up and heard his brother, frantic.

"Papi esta delante," he kept saying. "Dad is up ahead."

In the hours that followed, Rudy Garcia accompanied a Florida Highway Patrol trooper to a burned dump truck. It was his dad's.

Another man had heard Fundora scream for help, but visibility was only 2 to 3 feet and the truck was on fire, Garcia later told his friend and fellow trucker Pablo Ferrerosa.

He called his brother again, but Rosny Garcia held out hope. He visited every hospital in Polk County, looking for his stepfather. That night, the same trooper who met his brother confirmed: Fundora was dead.

For the families of three others who died last Wednesday in the 43-vehicle pileup in I-4's eastbound lanes, confirmation from the medical examiner didn't come until Monday.

The other victims were Michael Fricke Jr., a 34-year-old truck driver, husband and father of three from the Clair-Mel City area of Tampa; Joseph Noel, 57, of Lakeland, who was driving a Lincoln Continental; and Darren Scott Snyder, a 35-year-old Polk County newlywed who worked at Walt Disney's Animal Kingdom as a heating and air-conditioning technician.

Their four vehicles were among 13 that burned in that crash.

Fundora drove trucks since he was a teenager, hauling loads from one end of Cuba to another. Looking for a better quality of life, he braved the Florida Straits on a raft, as thousands of other Cubans did in 1994.

He landed in Miami and lived there for a year, then moved to Tampa. He always promised his family he'd send for them.

His wife Josefina Miranda arrived six years ago. His three sons arrived last year.

Rudy Garcia and his stepfather worked together at Soil Tech Distributors, hauling sand and trash across I-4.

"He was just born to work," Rosny Garcia said. And when an emergency presented itself, he rushed to help.

He was driving along I-4 last year when he came upon the scene of a crash, Rosny Garcia said. The victims were stuck in a car. Afraid the car would catch fire, he pulled over.

He broke the car's windshield, and he helped pull its passengers to safety.

Times staff writers Jessica Vander Velde, Saundra Amrhein and Mike Brassfield contributed to this report. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or 813 226-3354.