A trail of burned and shredded tire littered a St. James City street Sunday afternoon after a driver burned to death when his van erupted in flames.
Witnesses said as the van burned, a friend attempted to get the man out on Warren Boulevard but couldn't reach him. Flames from the van's tires also sparked small fires along lawns lining the street.
A spokesman for the Lee County Sheriff's Office said the man, a senior citizen, was southbound on Warren when a tire caught fire and eventually spread to the van.
When deputies arrived soon after the 9-1-1 call about 3 p.m., firefighters with the Pine Island Fire Department were extinguishing the engulfed vehicle. They found the body in the driver's seat.
There were no other occupants.
The sheriff's spokesman added that the victim was driving on a steel rim for several miles after his tire shredded. As he drove along Warren approaching Emerald Avenue, the vehicle burst into flames.
The body was taken to the Medical Examiner's Office for positive identification and official cause of death.
Bits of burned rubber were strewn along a mile path from Warren to Bayshore Avenue to Sanibel Boulevard along with score marks from the metal tire rim.
"I smelled smoke and thought my house was on fire," said Aleta Wiegand of Jade Avenue. "I ran outside and saw it billowing. I ran out to check on my neighbors and saw the car in flames. The fire department was coming down the street, but it was too late."
Witnesses said the driver, known to them as "Ray," was caught inside the van and seemed unable to open the door. A friend who had been trailing him tried to warn him.
"She tried to get him to open the door, but he couldn't," Wiegand said.
Wiegand said that soon after the driver was overcome by the smoke and fire there was a small explosion.
At Warren and Rudy Avenue the burning bits of rubber caused yards to burst into flames. Jan Clausen said a neighbor rushed over to tell her that her yard was ablaze.
"My neighbor helped stomp out the flames," she said.