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Date of Issue: June 14, 2007

Passenger in bridge crash drowned

The passenger killed in an accident on the Anna Maria Island Bridge drowned, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.

Authorities withheld the cause of death until a conclusive ruling from the medical examiner.

Eudiel Gonzalez-Ortiz, 21, of Wimauma, was riding in the back passenger seat in a green 2000 Ford Expedition when the SUV went off the bridge into Anna Maria Sound early May 13, which was Mother's Day.

Two men in the front seat, Florentino Gonzalez-Doran, 35, and Gregorio Lopez-Chavarria, 21, of Bradenton, were treated at Blake Medical Center for injuries sustained in the crash.

The driver, Lopez-Chavarria, faces multiple charges in connection with the accident - 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 - the legal limit is .08. 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 - West Manatee Fire Rescue Battalion Chief Rich Losek and firefighter Greg Wigeri Van Edema - arriving to the bridge by 3:21 a.m.

Also arriving soon after the accident were two motorcyclists, Ian Haddix of Bradenton and Evan Purcell of Holmes Beach, and two boaters fishing for snapper near the bridge, Christian Cornell of Northport and Robert D. Cornell of Bradenton.

Robert Cornell heard the crash, though he didn't immediately know a vehicle had plunged into the water.

"We were underneath the bridge," he said, placing his boat on the south side of the span. "When the accident happened, we heard two loud, distinct thuds."

Cornell would come to learn that the thuds were created by the SUV going through the concrete barrier on the bridge and then crashing into the water.

"We could see what looked like smoke," Cornell said, but he and his brother then realized it was dust from the concrete.

FHP determined that the SUV, headed east on the bridge, 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.

After the crash, Cornell called 911 on his mobile phone. He remembered the time - 3:15 a.m. - and hearing voices in the darkness, echoing under the bridge.

"The guys were yelling for help, but you couldn't make out what they were saying," Cornell said. "It wasn't clear. But there was a lot of yelling."

Within minutes of the 911 call, Losek and Wigeri Van Edema arrived and began the rescue and recovery operation. The two injured men had emerged from the SUV and were helped to shore, but Gonzalez-Ortiz remained in the vehicle.

A light from Cornell's boat and an underwater WMFR light cut the darkness and the firefighters - one standing on the SUV roof and one diving - removed Gonzalez-Ortiz from the vehicle and placed him on a gurney.

A firefighter asked the Cornell brothers to bring their boat closer.

"They put the boy on our boat," Cornell said, and, as he navigated to the Kingfish Boat Ramp, a firefighter performed CPR.

"My brother was holding the gurney while the firefighter was pushing down," Cornell said.

He saw that the young man was bleeding, that he had a large hematoma on his face, and that his eyes were open. He also saw that Gonzalez-Ortiz "was gone."

"To see a young man like that taken in the prime of his life," Cornell said. "A mother lost her child on Mother's Day and it was such a senseless thing."

In a taped interview with investigators, Lopez-Chavarria allegedly said he and the other men had been drinking beer since the day before and were looking for someplace to buy more alcohol. Authorities found a case of Bud Light in the wrecked SUV.

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

Last week, authorities continued to investigate the accident, including where the men made their last beer purchases.

"This information has not yet been able to be determined and is still under investigation," said FHP Sgt. Norman Parks.

FHP has determined that contrary to at least one witness account, there was not a second vehicle involved in the accident. "This was a single-vehicle crash," Parks said.

Lopez-Chavarria is scheduled for an arraignment hearing at the Manatee County Courthouse in Bradenton June 22.

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