The risks of traveling a dark road at night are always there. Flat tires. Breakdowns. Curves. Crashes.
On this night, a black bear weighing more than 300 pounds that wandered onto a rural road 15 miles north of Interstate 75 near Big Cypress National Preserve set off a tragic course of events that led to the death of three people; eight others were taken to hospitals, authorities said.
First, a Lincoln Navigator SUV heading toward the highway slammed into the bear, killing it on impact.
What happened next — a deadly domino effect — had Seminole police investigators working Monday to piece the events together.
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What they know: Three pickup trucks carrying eight people, also heading toward the highway, stopped to help the people in the SUV, severely damaged by the collision with the bear. Within seconds, a Mercedes heading in the opposite direction careened into the SUV and then another car ,and theninto the people who had gotten out of the cars.
In the end, three people who stopped died, eight others were transported to area hospitals, and two people were not injured.
The three men who died at the scene were identified Monday as Yoel Menendez, 44; Ricoberto Llanes, 43; and Alain Navarro, 46, all of Miami-Dade.
“It’s a tragedy that lives were lost, especially lives of people who stopped to help,” said Seminole police spokesman Gary Bitner. “It is so unusual for a black bear to be the cause of an accident.”
The two-lane road, known as Snake Road and which has a posted speed limit of 45 mph, leads through the sprawling 50,000 acre Big Cypress Seminole Reservation. It is a route to Clewiston, a rural sugar-producing town in Hendry County. Tourists also take the road to get to Billy Swamp Safari, home of alligator shows and airboat rides and the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Seminole Museum.
According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Florida has between 2,500 and 3,000 black bears, the state’s largest land mammal and the only bear species in the state.
Bears live in seven regions in the state, including Collier and Hendry counties. In the past year, there were 504 reported sightings with 15 road kills reported in Collier. Hendry County had one road kill on Jan. 21, said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokeswoman Carli Segelson. Statewide, 132 bears were struck and killed by vehicles in 2014, down from 230 in 2013 and 285 in 2012.
Most black bears in the southern part of the state live in the densely wooded wilderness of the Big Cypress and Fakahatchee Strand northwest of the Miami-Dade/Broward metropolitan area.
Like in so many cases involving disabled or crashed cars on South Florida highways, the first event didn’t prove to be deadly — in this case, the impact with the bear. It was the chain reaction that ended in tragedy.
Bitner said the events happened at about 7 p.m. and that the moon wasn’t out yet. The driver of the Navigator SUV, Caroline Billie, a resident of the Big Cypress community, “tried to stop, but couldn’t” as she drove down a part of the road that didn’t snake. Bitner said police were investigating how fast the Navigator was going. The accident happened just outside of Broward County in Hendry as Billie was headed east toward Alligator Alley. After hitting the bear, her car was disabled and partially in the lane of oncoming cars.
The three pickup trucks behind her in caravan-style decided to stop.
“They were being good Samaritans,” Bitner said.
The men were returning from a weekend hunting trip, Bitner said.
Noel Sosa of Cape Coral, the brother-in-law of one of the men killed, told the Sun-Sentinel that he wasn’t sure where the men had been hunting. He described his brother-in-law, Yoel Menendez, who owns a Hialeah discount store and has two sons, as “a good guy, a family man.’’
The Mercedes, driven by Gary McInturff of Hollywood, headed away from I-75 and hit the SUV first before hitting the car and seven of the people standing nearby. The Mercedes, which also carried three of McInturff’s family members, rolled over several times.
The investigation is ongoing, and there are no charges so far.
Bitner said that when emergency vehicles arrived, “there was a lot going on at the scene.”
Four people were taken to Broward Health Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale by helicopter and another two were taken to the same hospital by ambulance. Two others were transported by ambulance to Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood.
Broward Sheriff Fire and Rescue spokesman Mike Jachles said Sunday night that his agency, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach County provided choppers to transport victims.
“There was excellent inter-agency communication,” Jachles said.
Five of the injured were treated and released, including McInturff, Luis Alberto Collaso and Luis Rodriguez. Three people were admitted to Broward Health Medical Center with non-life threatening injuries including José Vega and Mario Cecilio, both of Miami-Dade County and a juvenile passenger of the car driven by McInturff. José Miranda, who was part of the group of good Samaritans, was not injured.
Bitner said investigators are trying to determine what caused the crash on the road.
“We are looking into every possibility,” Bitner said.
Miami Herald staff writers Jenny Staletovich and Jackie Salo contributed to this report.