Thursday, January 26, 2012

The way we were...the day it rained money in Overtown

Fifteen years ago this month - an Only-in-Miami story - an armored car crashes on I-95 sending money raining down on one of Miami's poorest neighborhoods.

From the Miami Herald, January 9, 1997:

by FRANCES ROBLES, Herald staff writer

It was Overtown's version of Pennies from Heaven : quarters and cash from I-95.

Miami firefighter Manny Rodriguez was there trying to quell the chaos after a Brinks truck crashed. Hundreds of people with dollar signs in their eyes went wild around him. Money was everywhere, and folks were dropping on all fours to get some.

He plucked 20s out of trees. He gathered rolls of quarters from the dirt. Bills flew in the air. Nestled in the bushes, Rodriguez found a jackpot: a square white 50-pound bag.

Rodriguez's jaw dropped. A $50,000-a-year firefighter who usually responds to gas spills was working a money spill. And he had just found $330,000. Cash. Currency. Moolah. And he got there a half hour after the crash.

"It was loot , a lot of money," said Rodriguez, 33. "It was very heavy. I didn't even know how much was in there. I gave it to the Brinks guy, and he told me it was about $330,000. I freaked out."

Why didn't he try to keep it?

This is a practical man: He likes being a firefighter. He could lose the job he has had for nine years. He would get in big trouble and lose his treasure anyway.

"It settled in later. I started thinking: What could I do with all that money?'' said Rodriguez, who works out of Station 1 in downtown Miami. "I love my job too much to do something stupid. Basically, it's theft. Everybody picking up quarters was stealing, I think.

"I wouldn't engage in that kind of craziness. It was ugly to watch. I never even thought about keeping it.''

Lots of other people did. And they got away with it.

Opportunity knocked when an armored Brinks truck lost control at 7:25 a.m. Wednesday while turning from westbound 836 onto northbound Interstate 95 and hit a barrier. The truck turned over and split open. A truck loaded with $3.7 million. "The car literally opened like a sardine can, and money literally showered down to the street below as well as onto the highway,'' said Miami police spokesman Lt. Bill Schwartz. "It was pandemonium. People were climbing over fences, climbing over each other. They put it in their pockets, in paper bags, wherever they could until they couldn't carry any more."

Word spread fast. People called their relatives. Residents from nearby Town Park Village came dashing out of their apartments. Drivers pulled over during rush hour to pick up money bags. Passersby were suddenly rich. Up to $555,000

Florida Highway Patrol spokesman Lt. Ernesto Duarte said about 10 to 15 percent of the truck's load disappeared. That's up to $555,000 now in the hands of I-95 commuters and the people of Northwest Fifth Avenue and 17th Street -- the heart of one of South Florida's poorest neighborhoods.

"People walking by, people driving by, anybody that was a witness got money," Duarte said. "Things like this don't happen very often, and people are going to try to take advantage. It's funny, but it's dangerous. People jumped out of cars and grabbed bags full of money. Residents all got money."

Empty money bags were found slit open. Boxes that once held hundreds of rolls of quarters were crushed and raided.

Many people got away with thousands of dollars. Others settled for laundry money -- about $4,000 in quarters Brinks gave up on collecting.

"I was over by Jackson Memorial Hospital, blocks away, and saw people on their knees. I knew what was up. They weren't there picking vegetables," said a man who said to call him David Brink ley.

He ran four blocks and joined about 150 people on their knees collecting quarters. Men joined forces to open manhole covers and check the sewer pipes for spoils. Housewives combed through the dirt with sticks.

"I heard one dude got $35,000," the man said. "I got about $15. Let me get out of here before I get robbed."

The way most people saw it, it was only fair: finders-keepers. Losers? Well, they weep.

"My sister called me and said, `Girl! A truck full of money just fell off the highway!' I didn't believe her," said Roslyn Schuler, her pants sagging from the weight of her loot. "I saw the crowd rush in, and I went in behind them. It's free money! And nobody's robbing for it!

"I must have here $30 or $40." In coins.

Cody Bernard made off with about 10 bucks.

"I got mostly just change, but money is money," he said. "It's honest. I didn't steal it. I'll take it wherever I can get it.

"I think I'll go get a case of Budweiser."

Schwartz says the discoverers shouldn't rest so easy. Detectives will have their eyes out for people who were penniless Tuesday and suddenly strutting the streets with wads of cash. He says taking the money wasn't ethical. And it wasn't legal, either.

"The money does not belong to them. It is theft, whether you picked up a quarter or $100,000," Schwartz said. "Collecting the quarters, nickels and dimes will be hard. But the big bills, we'll be counting on people's consciences."

The driver of the truck, Walter Cravero, and his co-worker, Lazaro Diaz, were both treated and released Wednesday afternoon at Jackson Memorial Hospital. Cravero was charged with reckless driving and got a ticket for having three bald tires.

The people at Brinks won't disclose the tally of the missing fortune.

"Our only comment is that we have no comment," said company spokesman Marven Moss. "We're still investigating what happened."

Hours after the crash, hopeful stragglers were still coming by.

"They said gold fell out of the sky," said a man named Juan. "It sure seemed so. I saw it on the news and rushed over.

"It's a sad shame there's none here now."

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