A Valrico woman who witnessed a head-on collision on the Selmon Expressway that killed a Hillsborough County sheriff’s deputy thinks the deputy intended to protect her when he pulled in front of her vehicle, becoming “a human shield” as the wrong-way driver bore down on them.
“He saved my life,” said Sarah Geren, 42, who was heading home after a shift at The Castle in Ybor City about 2:45 a.m. Saturday. As she approached the Falkenburg Road exit, she saw headlights coming at her in the elevated lanes of the expressway.
She said she flashed her lights on and off, trying to warn the wrong-way driver, later identified as Erik Thomas McBeth, 31, of Hudson. Then she pulled as far over to the right as she could.
Just then, she said, Deputy John Robert Kotfila Jr., a traffic-crash investigator in District 4, passed her, getting between her vehicle and the oncoming 2013 GMC Terrain sport utility vehicle driven by McBeth.
“If he had not made that split-second decision, not only would my life be lost, but my boyfriend’s life as well,” Geren said.
The boyfriend was in the car but not identified.
“I never got an opportunity to meet the deputy, but I think he is the most amazing man.
“He died a hero,” she said. “I was a random person on a random road at a random time. He saved me.”
She said she didn’t know Kotfila was behind her until he pulled in front of her.
The impact of the head-on collision spewed debris from both vehicles onto her car, she said. She immediately called 911 to report the wreck, then got out to check on the drivers.
“There was no movement from either vehicle,” she said.
The 30-year-old deputy was taken to Tampa General Hospital, where he died from his injuries. McBeth was pronounced dead at the scene.
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Monday afternoon, several of Kotfila’s fellow deputies met with the media to talk about him, recalling amusing and poignant stories about the young deputy and what he meant to the them, the department and the community.
“Talk about a ball of energy,” said Deputy Cale Parsons, a fellow traffic-crash investigator. “That guy wouldn’t slow down. He was like a little brother. He was our little brother, a little brother you couldn’t help but love.”
The deputies spoke at the sheriff’s law enforcement memorial outside the main operations center in Ybor City. They were in front of a statue of a deputy, head bowed and flags flown at half staff. A planter in front of the statue was filled with red and pink roses.
Sheriff’s Sgt. Eric Powell oversees the SafetyNet team that Kotfila served with. The team helps locate missing persons.
“When I met the guy the first time, there was just this life about him,” Powell said. “He always had that smile. That’s who he was. He smiled a lot. It was contagious.”
He said he relied on Kotfila for any task.
“I never had to ask for anything,” Powell said. “I just could depend on him. We’re just going to miss him.”
Other colleagues echoed the sentiment.
“He did his job,” Sgt. Jeff Massaro said. “He did his job with pride. John made us better. He’s going to be missed.”
The wreck that took the lives of Kotfila and McBeth occurred on the elevated lanes of the Selmon Expressway just west of the Interstate 75 overpass.
Deputies think McBeth entered the expressway at the eastern terminus near the Westfield Brandon shopping center.
Sheriff’s spokesman Larry McKinnon said that perhaps 20 seconds before the wreck, 911 operators got a call from someone saying there was a wrong-way driver on the expressway, and dispatchers were in the process of issuing a warning to deputies.
The first hint that Kotfila was in a wreck came when his microphone in the vehicle was disabled by the impact. Whenever there is an open mic, dispatchers try to raise the deputy, but they could not get Kotfila to respond, McKinnon said.
Then the second 911 call came, from Geren.
McKinnon acknowledged the problem in the Bay area in the past few years with drivers getting onto interstates and expressways heading into oncoming traffic. Usually, he said, impaired drivers are to blame, though tests to determine whether alcohol or drugs played a part in this wreck have not been completed.
“The common denominator usually is impairment,” McKinnon said. “That combined with road construction and traffic pattern changes.”
The elevated lanes of the Selmon Expressway switch directions depending on the flow of traffic. In the mornings it is westbound to carry rush-hour traffic from the Brandon area to Tampa, and in the evenings it is eastbound to bring traffic back to Brandon. At the time of the crash, the lanes were dedicated to eastbound traffic.
The eastern terminus of the expressway has gates that drop when traffic is eastbound only.
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Highway safety officials say the expressway exit ramp accessed by McBeth had all the signs and warnings required by the state.
“To enter the Selmon Expressway reversible express lanes in the direction the wrong-way driver was heading, he had to enter on the wrong side of the roadway at the intersection, ignoring gates that blocked access to the roadway,” said Susan Chrzan, director of public affairs and communications with the Tampa Hillsborough County Expressway Authority. “Lights and overhead signs showed the road closed for the westbound direction, in addition to the signals at the intersection that also showed arrows to turn only right or left.”
“Wrong-way” signs are posted on the shoulder of the exit ramp, and a “DO NOT ENTER” sign hangs over the road.
She said arrows pointing east are painted on the pavement in each of the exit lanes.
“We cannot speculate on how the wrong-way driver missed the markings on the roadway and signage to the side and above the roadway,” Chrzan said. “It is our understanding that all warning lights, signs and crossbars were working properly. ... The markings and signage conform to the highest state and federal safety specifications.”
As investigators continue to look into the matter, funeral arrangements for Kotfila were finalized by the department and the deputy’s family, many of whom are law enforcement officers.
Kotfila’s father is a sergeant with the Massachusetts State Police. His uncle is a deputy in Pinellas County, and his brother is a police officer in Falmouth, Massachusetts.
Both his grandfathers were law enforcement officers as well.