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Boater dies after head hits bridge

photo
[Times photo: Dirk Shadd]
photoChris Harris, a Tampa truck driver, struck his head on the 79th Street S bridge, above, while boating under it at high tide Saturday. He never regained consciousness. His passenger managed to stop the boat. The water level shown at the bridge in St. Petersburg is halfway between high and low tide Monday. 

High tide reduced the clearance under the bridge in Boca Ciega Bay as he drove through at 40 mph, police say.

By LEANORA MINAI

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 16, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- As the sun set on Boca Ciega Bay, Chris Harris headed his red-and-white speedboat for the boat ramp, and home.

Approaching a bridge overpass at 40 mph, Harris knelt in his seat and momentarily turned away from the wheel to ask his passenger for a cigarette.

As he turned back around, Harris' head struck the bridge.

The 34-year-old Tampa truck driver never regained consciousness. He was pronounced dead late Saturday at Bayfront Medical Center.

State investigators say his speed, coupled with a high tide, contributed to the accident at the 79th Street S bridge, the link between South Causeway Isle and Yacht Club Estates.

"He probably thought he had enough clearance to make it under the bridge," said investigator Roger Young of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Police said Harris and his friends spent Saturday at Shell Island, a popular gathering spot for boaters on weekends.

They drank, but investigators said they did not detect a strong odor of alcohol on Harris in the emergency room. Toxicology tests will determine whether alcohol might have been a contributing factor in the accident.

Harris, who hauled scrap metal from Tampa to Miami for an Ohio trucking company, had the weekend free for the first time in two months, said his wife, Byrnie. Mrs. Harris decided not to go along because they planned to go boating on Mother's Day.

"He just needed to get away and have some fun," said Mrs. Harris, 37, his wife of 12 years. "We kissed each other and said we loved each other."

Harris launched his 26-foot Avalon -- his boat for eight years -- from his dock at Marina Pointe Village Court in Tampa.

After a day in the sun on Shell Island, Harris dropped off a few friends at the waterfront Gators Cafe & Saloon on Treasure Island. Later, he took a shortcut that brought him to the small bridge.

A high tide was causing the water level under the 79th Street S bridge to rise, leaving less room for boats to clear. Boaters passing under the bridge must leave no wake. Harris sat at the wheel. His passenger, 44-year-old Kim Stallings of Pinellas Park, was seated behind him. St. Petersburg police say Harris looked away from the boat to ask Stallings for a cigarette. When he turned back, his head hit the bridge.

The impact ripped his seat from its bolts. The force pitched the bow in the air, and it struck the undercarriage of the bridge. The windshield shattered.

The boat kept going, but Stallings made her way to wheel and pulled the throttle to neutral. She pulled the boat to the seawall and turned off the engine. She could not be reached for comment Monday.

Dan and Kathy Peak, who live on Causeway Isle a few doors away from the accident, say boaters often speed through the residential waterways. On Saturday, they said they saw Harris go by "very fast."

"What we heard was the throttle going from fast to idling and then nothing," Mrs. Peak said. "Maybe this will raise awareness that maybe there needs to be idle speed out from the bridge."

All day Monday, Harris' friends stopped by to see his wife and their two sons, Christopher and Cory.

Friends and family described Harris as generous -- the man they nicknamed "Daddy Warbucks" because he always offered to pay for dinner and drinks.

"He was the most fun-loving person ever to be around with the biggest heart," said Harris' brother, Pat Harris.

His passion was truck driving, slipping behind a steering wheel for the first time at age 12 and following in the path of his grandfather, father and oldest brother. He also enjoyed the Gulf of Mexico for its dolphins.

"He was just very loved," Mrs. Harris said. "He had a lot of friends. A lot of friends. He's going to be very missed."

- Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.

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