Aerial view of the Sunshine Skyway fishing pier following vehicle crash into Tampa Bay
MANATEE -- A 2012 red Mercedes-Benz convertible was recovered Wednesday after witnesses say they saw a man speeding down the south Skyway Fishing Pier before crashing through a concrete barrier and into Tampa Bay.
The first 911 call from a witness reported a red Mercedes-Benz drove off the south Skyway Fishing Pier at 2:08 p.m. It was soon followed by other calls, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.
"We can confirm one fatality," FHP trooper Kenn Watson said.
FHP public affairs officer Sgt. Steve Gaskins said the adult male driving the two-door Mercedes-Benz was from Eustis.
The area of the bay where the car submerged is in Hillsborough County and Troop C traffic homicide units will investigate, he said in a statement. Divers from St. Petersburg Fire & Rescue located the submerged vehicle, which has now been recovered along with the deceased driver still inside.
The North River Fire District, the U.S. Coast Guard, paramedics and the Manatee County Sheriff's Office also responded. Before officials blocked off the area with yellow crime-scene tape, more than two dozen people stood at the end of the pier where the vehicle had crashed through the barrier. Some stood beside first responders, peering down at the water.
Gaskins said it is unknown why the man drove the vehicle off the fishing pier. He couldn't say if FHP believes it may have been a suicide.
"I can't speculate on his decisions because he's deceased," he said. "What I can say for sure is that a motor vehicle in transit crashed into a body of water and the driver is deceased. That, by definition, makes it a traffic crash. I can't say that's what happened because, if he's sitting in the car and all of a sudden has a heart attack and passes out. ... that's a medically induced traffic crash."
Paul Robicheau, 61, was fishing at the pier with a friend when he said a "smartly dressed" man in his 40s parked the Mercedes in front of Robicheau's 1990 Lincoln Mark VII LSC.
The Parrish resident described the man as "GQ clean."
The driver got out of his car to smoke a cigarette, Robicheau said.
"He walked over to the wall. Didn't pay no attention," he recalled.
According to Robicheau, the man then drove back nearly to the fishing pier gate and turned around.
"Next thing you know, I'm standing here fishing," he said. "I heard the scream of that engine. I jumped out a little bit to tell that guy to slow down."
Robicheau said the Mercedes was speeding almost 100 mph before striking the pier wall.
"Totally plowed right into the wall, collapsed that car ... collapsed it," Robicheau said.
The wind whipped Robicheau's hair as he shook his head in disbelief.
"Unbelievable. ... guy was clean, sharp, nice dressed, beautiful dressed, clean," he said. "Unbelievable, unbelievable."
Mike Munro, 28, was fishing at the wall moments before the crash. The Orlando resident said he noticed the man approach and turn back.
"I just heard the motor of the car screaming and I thought: 'Something wasn't right.' So I turned around and looked around the corner and he was only like probably 200 feet away from me going close to 100 miles per hour," Munro said as he sat on a low platform at the pier.
Munro said he jumped out of the way, heard a big boom and by the time he turned around, the car was already submerged.
"It still doesn't feel real," Munro added.
Nearby, Bennie Sanders, 73, and his wife, Carol Sanders, 71, observed the chaos from behind crime scene tape. The couple said they drove from their home in North Port to check out "fishing possibilities" at the pier. They couldn't leave immediately because their truck was parked close to the crash.
"I would process what happened as a suicide," Bennie said as he looked over at the sea of first responders. "An absolute meant-to-kill-himself suicide."
His wife nodded her head in agreement.
"I'm just sorry this happened," she said.
"It's a shame," Bennie said. "This time of year, especially, it's a shame that somebody would feel it necessary to do that. ... if, in fact, that's what he did."
The Mercedes was later pulled out of the water by a towing truck and placed at the end of the pier. Officials then placed a yellow sheet on the left side of the vehicle where the driver was sitting.
Jessica De Leon, Herald law enforcement reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7049. You can follow her on Twitter
Amaris Castillo, Herald law enforcement/island reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7051. You can follow her on Twitter@AmarisCastillo.