Police say the driver, who hit a car, a utility box and a fence before the car stopped, might have had a medical problem.
By DEBORAH O'NEIL
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 4, 2001
CLEARWATER -- Police Sgt. James Steffens knew something bad was going to happen Tuesday morning when he spotted an elderly man in a Buick weaving back and forth across three lanes of traffic on Belcher Road.
Other cars on the busy thoroughfare were dodging the gold Riviera.
Steffens, off duty and running errands for his wife, called police dispatchers on his cellular phone, hoping officers could intercept the Buick before it reached the congested and expansive intersection of Belcher and Sunset Point roads.
But in less than two minutes, the Buick had plowed into a stopped car, jumped the median, accelerated south down the northbound lane of Belcher, sped through the intersection at an estimated 75 to 80 mph, slammed into a utility box and crashed through a homeowner's fence, missing the house by just a few feet, authorities said.
Drivers in all directions of the intersection were stopped when the car flew through.
"I'm shocked he did not have impact with any vehicles here in the intersection of Sunset and Belcher," said Trooper James Bregon of the Florida Highway Patrol. "Otherwise it would have been horrendous."
The Florida Highway Patrol did not release the name of the Buick driver but said he was in critical condition after being extricated from his car and taken by helicopter to Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg. The car is registered to William Harvey Trenn, 81, of 4596 Devonshire Blvd. in Palm Harbor. Tuesday, Trenn was at Bayfront in critical condition, the hospital said.
"It was very, very frustrating not to be able to prevent that," Steffens said Tuesday afternoon. "It was very frustrating to watch and not be able to stop that car."
Authorities said it appeared the Buick driver may have suffered from a medical problem while at the wheel. Steffens said it was clear the driver had lost control of the car.
"He was clearly impaired," Steffens said. "There was something going on."
The 11:30 a.m. accident caused an estimated $12,000 damage to a city traffic control box that was ripped from the curb, along with the box's concrete base, said Glenn Weaver, a signal systems engineer.
Police directed traffic at the intersection most of the afternoon as city workers scrambled to get the lights operating before rush hour. The signals were working again by about 4 p.m.
For homeowners Adrick and Betty Buck, the accident was nothing short of stunning. A friend of Adrick Buck's happened to pass by the accident and called him at work, saying a car went through his fence. Buck lives at 2224 Albright Drive, but his backyard, enclosed with a wooden fence, sits at the southeast corner of Belcher and Sunset Point roads.
Buck arrived home to find a mangled Buick with a blood-splattered seat sitting just 4 feet from his home. The roof of the car sat by the pool. Rescue workers had removed it to get the driver out. A walker was thrown from the car. The massive traffic control box was in his yard.
"I just can't believe he ran up in here," Buck said.
The couple said they were thankful no one was in the yard at the time of the accident. Mrs. Buck, who works at a retirement center, said she was worried about the driver.
"The fence is material stuff," she said. "This is a person. I hope he's all right."
The accident played out over several blocks of Belcher Road. Steffens said he first noticed the Buick driving erratically around Oak Neck Drive.
"He'd have two tires on the curb and two tires on the road," Steffens said. "As I slowed down he almost side-swiped my car and I had to get up onto the median."
Steffens praised the defensive driving of the other cars on Belcher that avoided being hit.
The Buick slammed into a Nissan waiting at a stop light at Montclair Road, FHP officials said. Authorities did not release the driver's name but said the person was taken by ambulance to Mease Dunedin Hospital.
After hitting the Nissan, the car never hit the brakes, Steffens said. It went over the median and headed south in the northbound lanes of Belcher Road picking up speed. Bregon said the Buick was probably driving between 75 to 80 mph when it hit the traffic control box.
Steffens stopped and tried to administer first aid to the man but he was pinned in the car. The officer held the elderly man's head immobile and made sure he was breathing as rescue workers arrived at the scene.