TAMPA, Fla. - A Hillsborough County deputy's final actions may have saved two lives when he put himself between a wrong-way driver and another vehicle on the Selmon Expressway.
Deputy John Kotfila Jr. was killed early Saturday morning when his cruiser was hit by a wrong-way driver, identified as Erik McBeth.
Investigators said McBeth, 31, likely ignored warning signs and got onto the Expressway in Brandon heading West, when the road's express lanes were only open to eastbound traffic. He also died in the crash.
Sarah Geren said Monday she was also there at around 2:45 a.m. and was initially driving in front of the deputy when she saw McBeth's headlights heading straight toward her.
"As I realized that the car was coming at me and coming faster and faster, I was flashing my lights crazily at him like a strobe light, like click, click, click, click, click," she said.
Geren, whose boyfriend was in the car with her, said she started to pull toward the side of the road.
"The moment that I started to pull over, [the deputy] raced around me and I think he literally made a split second decision and said, 'I'm going to try to stop this car from being in the accident," she said, referring to her car.
Geren and her father, Jim Karom, joined deputies outside the sheriff's office to talk about Kotfila's heroic actions.
"It's a man that saved my daughter and he is a national hero. He saved two lives and probably countless others because if that hadn't have happened, there could have been more cars behind," Karom said. "There was no mistakes made. He did everything he did intentionally and he saved my daughter and her boyfriend and I thank him."
Kotfila, 30, who came from a family of law enforcement officers, had been a member of the department for six years.
His friends at the sheriff's office are heartbroken over the loss.
"We're all going to miss him and we loved him," said Sgt. Eric Powell, one of Kotfila's supervisors. "The energy he brought and the life he brought to this office and this community and I think we need to celebrate that."
"John is definitely going to be missed and I know the thing I'm going to miss most is his smile. He was just such a great person," added Detective Danielle Spencer.
The deputy's coworkers were not surprised to hear about his sacrifice.
"He was our little brother. He was a little brother you couldn't help but love. There was nothing about him that you disliked. He was there for you when you need him," said Deputy Cale Parsons.
Geren said she wanted to publicly come forward with their story so that the public would know that Kotfila died a hero.
"He saved my daughter," Karom said. "I was a random person on a random road, at a random time, I didn't know him and I love him for saving me," Geren added.
Kotfila's funeral will be held Friday at St. Timothy's Catholic Church in Lutz. A public visitation is planned from 11 a.m. until 1 p.m. with the funeral following immediately afterward.