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Man dies after Skyway crash

The midday crash on the approach to the Sunshine Skyway bridge involved four cars and slowed traffic into the afternoon.

[Times photo: Amber Tanille Woolfolk]
Joe Lawrence Rich Sr., 55, died Friday after a car lost control and struck him and his gray Mitsubishi, shown here after it was moved out of traffic.

By PATRICK COOPER

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 17, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- Joe Lawrence Rich Sr. stood behind his car on the approach to the Sunshine Skyway bridge Friday, perhaps preparing for some fishing, when an out-of-control Cadillac struck him from behind.

The impact, the result of a chain-reaction set off by what authorities said was another car's improper lane change, crushed Rich's legs. Rich, 55, died about 31/2 hours later at Bayfront Medical Center.

The bizarre noontime accident, which involved a total of four cars and also toppled a light pole, closed the right lane of the southbound Interstate 275 approach to the Skyway for almost two hours and backed up traffic nearly to downtown St. Petersburg.

Florida Highway Patrol troopers were investigating the scene for hours after the accident, walking along the glass-littered highway, attempting to determine the complicated chain of events.

The Cadillac had been driving in the inner lane but swerved left to avoid a Mercury minivan that had improperly changed lanes, troopers said. The driver of the Cadillac then oversteered back to the right, crashing into Rich and the back of his car, they said.

Before impact, the driver of the Cadillac, Socrates Chakonas, 81, said he "thought (he) saw something behind the car," but that was it. He said he never even knew he hit a man until he got out of his car and another person spotted Rich lying on the ground.

Rich might have been going fishing. Troopers found bait and fishing equipment in the back of his car, and the trunk of his car was raised.

On the scene, Sgt. Dan Evers said people sometimes go fishing under the interstate's Dick Misener Bridge, a short walk from where Rich's small Mitsubishi was parked.

Chakonas' Cadillac slammed into the light pole after crashing into Rich and his car, according to FHP. The pole fell over, hitting and causing minor damage to a pickup truck that was driving by. Also, with the impact from behind, troopers said Rich's car was knocked into traffic and hit the Mercury minivan. The van, driven by Eleonore Fouts, 72, sustained minor damage.

None of the occupants of the other vehicles was injured, troopers said. FHP officials reached Friday night did not know whether any charges had been filed, but said the investigation was continuing.

A Florida Department of Transportation worker was piecing the light pole back together as troopers cleared debris from the roadway. FHP's Evers said the pole fell easily but by design.

"They're constructed to break at the base" to minimize any damage to the people or cars they land on, he said.

Troopers blocked both lanes temporarily around 1:45 to examine the scene and remove the damaged vehicles. By 2 p.m., southbound traffic still was backed up several miles toward downtown.

It is illegal to park a car on a highway such as I-275, according to FHP. If a car is disabled, the driver has six hours to remove it.

The other two cars' drivers could not be reached for comment Friday night.

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