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Date of Issue: May 17, 2007

One dead, two injured in bridge crash

One man died and two others suffered injuries when the SUV they were in went off the Anna Maria Island Bridge into the water early May 13. The crash was the second on the bridge in less than a week. Islander Photos: Lisa Neff
Matt's Express salvage workers haul the SUV from the water as HBPD and FWC officers observe in patrol boats.
Missing links
Florida Department of Transportation workers installed approximately 15 feet of missing guardrail on the northwest side of the Anna Maria Island Bridge last week after a Bradenton man spun his car out of control and struck the guardrail. Islander Photo: Rick Catlin

One man died and two others suffered serious injuries when their SUV crashed through the Anna Maria Island Bridge guardrail and plummeted into the water early May 13.

The crash was the second on the bridge in less than a week - a Bradenton man suffered minor injuries when he lost control of his vehicle on the bridge May 7.

The May 13 accident happened at about 3:15 a.m., according to the Florida Highway Patrol.

The vehicle, according to FHP, was traveling eastbound on the bridge when the right front tire struck a curb and the vehicle crossed into the westbound, struck another curb, turned counterclockwise and went through the concrete guardrail into the water.

The accident led to a charge of DUI manslaughter against Gregario Lopez-Chavarria, 21, who was identified as the driver. Lopez-Chavarria, of Bradenton, and Florentino Gonzalez-Doran, 35, a passenger in the front seat, were injured in the crash. The name of the deceased passenger had not been released at press time.

Two young motorcyclists, who declined to provide their names to The Islander, and two West Manatee Fire Rescue District employees rescued Lopez-Chavarria and Gonzalez-Doran. The motorcyclists were crossing the bridge soon after the green Ford Expedition went into the water near the western edge of the bridge.

"We were passing by as it happened," said one motorcyclist. "We dove in."

"We seen people screaming," said the other. "Someone was on top of the SUV, screaming." Both citizen rescuers suffered minor injuries- scrapes and cuts on their chests and shoulders from barnacles. One limped across the bridge to his bike as he prepared to leave the scene.

The first emergency workers to the scene were WMFR Battalion Chief Rich Losek and firefighter Greg Wigeria. They climbed down a ladder into the water and helped bring the injured men to shore, as well as found the body in the vehicle.

Lopez-Chavarria and Gonzalez-Doran were taken to Blake Medical Center suffering serious injuries. A medical evacuation by helicopter was not possible because of the smoky haze caused by northern wildfires.

First reports from the bridge caused some confusion. Based on information from the passengers, communicating through a translator, law enforcement officials believed a fourth man had been in the vehicle and was missing.

So at dawn a search and recovery mission was in full operation, with officers from Holmes Beach Police Department, WMFR, U.S. Coast Guard, Florida Fish and Wildlife and the Manatee County Sheriff's Office assisting FHP.

Islanders awoke to the sound of a low-flying helicopter searching for the possible fourth victim. Divers and emergency officials at the water's edge and on the bridge also searched.

Meanwhile, divers and Matt's Express tow and salvage operators worked to haul the SUV from the water.

Additional emergency workers removed car parts and other debris from the water and tried to collect oil and gasoline that had turned the water to a shiny brown-green.

On the bridge, about a dozen patrol cars were parked, most of them with the MCSO and FHP.

The bridge remained closed to vehicle traffic for hours, opening at about 9:45 a.m. to a long line of vehicles headed into Holmes Beach and only a few cars headed off the Island because most had been redirected to cross on the Cortez drawbridge.

As motorists passed the scene, they slowed or stopped to look, sometimes forcing those behind them to slam on the brakes. The squealing tires occasionally causing reporters and emergency officials to jump.

With the SUV resting on the edge of the shore, FHP Sgt. William Pascoe studied the vehicle inside and out, looking at what had been an empty baby seat in the back row, the airbag lying limp on the steering wheel, the belongings strewn about, the broken windows and the crumpled doors and roof.

"We can only account for three people," he said, adding that no one had been publicly identified and authorities had not determined who was driving.

Pascoe, supervising officer on the scene, said both the injured men appeared to be under the influence of alcohol and that the investigation was ongoing.

He added that authorities had not determined whether the dead man, a passenger in the rear seat, had drowned or succumbed to injuries suffered in the impact.

"We'll wait for the medical examiner," he said.


Earlier accident

In the accident May 7, a vehicle slammed into the bridge, knocking a gap in the side guardrail and sending chunks of concrete into Anna Maria Sound.

The accident occurred at about 9:33 p.m., drawing a convoy of emergency personnel and halting traffic on the bridge.

"It looked like a carnival there were so many blue and red lights," said Holmes Beach resident Lisa Williams, an Islander employee.

Williams was driving on the bridge at the time of the accident and, after the crash, saw the wrecked truck, with at least one tire knocked off and spilling gas.

She also saw an unidentified motorist pull the truck driver from his vehicle.

Clifford G. Grayson, 44, was traveling east on the bridge in a 2004 Dodge pickup. According to the Florida Highway Patrol, Grayson was driving at a "high rate of speed" when the pickup crossed the divider separating the pedestrian walkway and the eastbound lane.

The pickup traveled with the driver's side wheels in the road and the passenger's side wheels on the walkway for about 235 feet.

The vehicle then crossed back into the road and began spinning counterclockwise, crossing into the westbound lane, slamming into the guardrail and eventually coming to a rest facing northeast in the westbound lane.

Grayson was taken to Blake Medical Center suffering minor injuries.

FHP estimated the damage to the pickup at $10,000.

"The vehicle caused structural damage to three sections of the bridge rail and posts," according to a report from William Thomas, a spokesman with FDOT's regional office in Bartow.

Inspectors later found that the accident damaged four railing posts and three sections of guardrailing.

On May 8, caution tape and wood filled the gap in the guardrail on the bridge, which is set for a major rehab in 2008.

In the days that followed, workers with L&S Concrete out of Sarasota, worked to repair the bridge, a process that involved installing temporary railing and then installing new reinforcing steel and casting new posts and rails.

The FHP report stated that the accident was alcohol related.