JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The body of a veteran Central Florida firefighter who died Saturday afternoon in the collision of two racing boats on the St. Johns River was escorted home Tuesday by fellow firefighters from Sanford.
It was a somber and silent procession as fellow first responders moved of body of Lt. Mike Salber from the medical examiner's office in Jacksonville to Central Florida.
The caravan of colleagues and friends from Sanford did so with dignity and respect.
Firefighters and police officers from Sanford, along with Jacksonville Fire Rescue Department's honor guard and a Jacksonville Sheriff's Office motorcycle team, were at the Medical Examiner's Office as Salber's flag-draped coffin was loaded into a hearse for his final trip home.
A sheriff's deputy accompanied Salber's girlfriend, Melanie Jeanine, to and from Jacksonville. She said she had dated Salber for the past year and a half.
"I just want him back. He was just a great guy," Jeanine told News4Jax on Monday. "There's nothing in his life that he did not do. When he did it, he did it in fourth gear and he did it 150 percent."
Salber, 56, was killed in a crash during the final day of the P1 Jacksonville Grand Prix powerboat races. News4Jax has learned that one of Salber's sons was one of three others hospitalized after the collision.
Salber was a lieutenant paramedic for the Sanford Fire Department. Salber's girlfriend said he had four children: three sons and a daughter, ages 17, 18, 20 and 22.
The two powerboats collided while racing on the St. Johns River around 1:50 p.m. during the third race of the day of the P1 Jacksonville Grand Prix powerboat races. The boat that Salber was in shot up into the air, then landed on top of him.
He and three others injured -- including his son -- were taken to UF Health Jacksonville, where Salber died.
Jeanine said she was watching the race and saw him crash.
“He always walks away. The fire chief from Cocoa Beach got the fire chief from Jacksonville to drive me to a room. I heard they knew he was gone when they got him. That he died instantly. I got to stay with him until his children got there,” Jeanine said. "He was in a P-1 boat and they’re not strapped in, so they’re meant to be thrown from the boat. But this was just a freak accident."
Jeanine said a viewing is scheduled for 5-8 p.m. Friday at the Baldwin Fairchild Funeral Home in Winter Garden, with a funeral set for 10 a.m. Saturday at Real Life Church in Clermont.
“Mike was larger than life. He lived life to the fullest. He was a world championship water skier, nationally ranked in Motor Cross. He was a lieutenant in the Sanford Fire Department for 23 years. There was nothing Mike wouldn’t do for anyone,” Jeanine said.
Race organizers said the boats crashed during the first turn near Memorial Park. Video of the crash shows one of the powerboats going airborne before flipping over onto the river. Both of the boats involved in the crash are from Florida -- Salber's from Orlando, and the other from Port St. Lucie.
The powerboats can reach speeds of up to 75 mph.