Veteran Firefighter Killed in Cycle Crash in Florida

A retired, 16-year veteran of the Bradenton Fire Department died Tuesday from injuries he received during a weekend crash on Manatee Avenue West.

David Zeller, a former firefighter and lieutenant for the city fire department, and another man were riding their motorcycles east along the avenue at around noon Saturday when the crash occurred.

According to an initial investigation by the Bradenton Police Department, Zeller was tailing the second motorcyclist while the two rode in the same lane. Zeller was trying to catch up. That's when his fireman-edition Harley Davidson Roadking clipped the rear of the other motorcycle, near the 4300 block of Manatee Avenue West.

The motorcycles collided, knocking Zeller, the other driver and Zeller's passenger off.

Zeller, 58, was wearing a small, half-helmet at the time of the crash, authorities said. He was airlifted to Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg in critical condition where he was placed on a respirator, Bradenton Fire Capt. Tom Woods said.

The other driver and Zeller's passenger, who witnesses described as Zeller's girlfriend, were transported to Bradenton's Blake Medical Center, where they remained Tuesday afternoon in stable condition. Because authorities are trying to notify next-of-kin, their identities were not released Tuesday.

"The circumstances surrounding it are still under investigation," Sgt. Timothy B. Harvey, a traffic homicide investigator with the Bradenton Police Department, said about the crash.

Woods and other officials at the Bradenton Fire Department, where Zeller worked from 1979 to 1995, learned of his death shortly after 4:30 p.m. Tuesday.

News of Zeller's death was still sinking in as Woods, 56, recalled meeting him 43 years ago, while the two were growing up in Columbus, Ohio.

In his younger days, Zeller was an athlete - a pole vaulter and a springboard diver, Woods said. Zeller, who had a passion for motorcycles, also fought in Vietnam.

It was a coincidence the two wound up working for the same agency, Woods said. It was at the Bradenton Fire Department where Zeller picked up the nickname, "Pop Z."

An avid smoker of Lucky Strike cigarettes, Zeller was hooked on caffeinated soda while working with the agency, Woods said. Still, he focused his energy on weightlifting and went to the Firefighter Olympics in the early 1990s to compete in the category.

"He put his mind to weightlifting and won an award," Woods said.

Jeff Ray was never a firefighter, but he called Zeller "Pop" anyway. He met Zeller 15 years ago, while dating Zeller's daughter.

When Ray heard about the crash Saturday afternoon, he ran to the scene, which was only a few blocks away from his home.

"They were loading him into an ambulance," Ray said Tuesday after learning of Zeller's death. "I knew it was Pop's bike when I saw it on the road. He was in pretty bad shape."

Both Ray and Woods said Zeller had a hard exterior. But there was more to him beneath the surface.

"He was a really tough guy," Woods said. "He wasn't a perfect guy. But he was a team player. He would try to do the best for everybody."

Distributed by the Associated Press