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Date of Issue: May 24, 2007

Review of fatal crash on bridge continues

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A construction worker repairs the guardrail on the Anna Maria Island Bridge following a fatal crash. Crews worked through the week to repair the guardrail - a large section of the bridge was damaged when a SUV went through the railing and plunged into Anna Maria Sound. Islander Photo: Lisa Neff

The investigation continued last week into the May 13 crash of an SUV on Anna Maria Island Bridge that caused the death of one man.

One passenger was killed when the vehicle struck the guard rail, and two others, the driver and another passenger, suffered injuries in the crash that is under review by the Florida Highway Patrol.

Authorities on May 19 publicly identified the passenger who died when the green 2000 Ford Expedition went off the bridge into Anna Maria Sound. The deceased is Eudiel Gonzale-Ortiz, 21, of Wimauma. The notification took six days because authorities had to reach next of kin in Mexico, said FHP Lt. Doug Dodson, a spokesman for the regional headquarters.

A passenger in the front seat was identified as Florentino Gonzalez-Doran, 35. He was treated at Blake Medical Center in Bradenton.

The driver was identified as Gregorio Lopez-Chavarria, 21, of Bradenton. He too was treated at Blake Medical Center before being transferred to the Manatee County jail.

Lopez-Chavarria faces multiple charges in connection with the crash - DUI manslaughter, a second-degree felony; two counts of driving under the influence causing property damage, a first-degree misdemeanor; and driving with no valid driver's license and causing injury, a third-degree felony.

The blood-alcohol level of both Lopez-Chavarria and Gonzalez-Doran was tested at Blake. Lopez-Chavarria's blood-alcohol level was .29, well over the legal limit of .08 for the driver, and Florentino's blood-alcohol level was .32.

Lopez-Chavarria took another test later May 13 at the Manatee County jail. That test also put his blood-alcohol level above the legal limit.

The accident occurred at about 3:15 a.m., with emergency personnel arriving to the bridge by 3:21 a.m.

West Manatee Fire Rescue Battalion Chief Rich Losek and firefighter Greg Wigeri Van Edema, along with two motorcyclists traveling across the bridge, helped rescue Lopez-Chavarria and Gonzalez-Doran.

Investigator Ronnie B. Highsmith, a corporal with FHP, identified small scratch and tire marks where the SUV's front right tire struck a raised concrete curb in the eastbound lane.

Authorities determined the SUV went out of control, spun into the westbound lane and went through the concrete guardrail. The vehicle plunged 20 feet into the water, landing upright, crumpled and missing a wheel.

Lopez-Chavarria, according to FHP, said he was driving about 65 mph in a 50-mph zone when he lost control of the vehicle.

In a taped interview with investigators, he also allegedly said he and the other men had been drinking beer since the day before and were looking for someplace to buy more alcohol. When the wrecked SUV was pulled from the water, authorities found a case of Bud Light. Dodson said investigators had not determined where the motorists obtained the beer.

Lopez-Chavarria and Gonzalez-Doran told FHP they did not know Gonzale-Ortiz. The men met May 12 at a bar at 15th Street East and 57th Avenue East in Bradenton, according to FHP's report.

Also still under review was whether a second vehicle was traveling with the SUV. Witnesses who called 911 to report the accident reported seeing a second car in front of the SUV as it crossed the bridge. Dodson said investigators don't suspect a second vehicle was involved in the crash, but rather was in the vicinity.

The accident was the second fatal wreck on the bridge in just over a year. On April 8, 2006, passenger Ryan Costello suffered severe injuries and driver Zane Zavadil, 19, died when the SUV they were in went through the guardrail and into the water. FHP said alcohol was a factor in that accident.

Also, earlier in the month in what FHP called another alcohol-related accident, a Bradenton man suffered minor injuries when his truck crashed into the guardrail, but did not fall from the bridge.

Last week, as authorities continued to create a complete picture of what happened May 13, motorists and pedestrians on the bridge reflected on safety.

Several suggested the time had come for a new, more modern bridge, such as the four-lane span recommended by transportation authorities but challenged by Island residents in the 1990s.

"If this was a backwoods, country road people were taking to and from the Island, this bridge would be fine," said Sue Arnold, a boater who frequently crosses the bridge to Kingfish Boat Ramp. "People want a fast road, but not an accommodating bridge. That's the problem."

Many others suggested regular law enforcement checkpoints at the bridge.

"I don't think we need to start building bridges to accommodate impaired drivers," said Bert Plympton, who fishes from the bridge. "I think we need to keep the impaired drivers off the bridge."

"I'd like to know where these guys were drinking at 3 a.m.," said Tammi Price, of Holmes Beach. "I think we've got to do better at cleaning up the roads."

Frequent bridge traveler Phil Cramer suggested a review of the speed limit.

"Slower going would make the bridge safer," he said. "There's no need to fly at 50 or more over that bridge. Make them slow down for sleepy Anna Maria Island."