They never saw what hit them. It all happened so fast.
Most likely an 18-wheeler, speculated the Mississippi trooper who came to their aid on a lonely stretch of Interstate 10 between Biloxi and Gulfport. A phantom truck rammed their trailer and sped off into the night, he said.
There was no one else on the road when the trailer, and the RV towing it, jacknifed off the shoulder and wrenched apart in a split second. The RV rolled and bounced and collapsed like a spent accordion and came to an ugly stop in the wet grass at Mile Marker 28, with Gregg and Leslie Ann Ciccone trapped inside the wreckage, hanging upside down and pinned by their shoulder harnesses.
It all happened so fast.
The Ciccones were on their way from St. Petersburg to San Diego, California, with their dogs Lad and Rey, and nearly all of their earthly possessions packed into the 28-foot Damon motorhome and 14-foot trailer. The former owners of the St. Pete boutique bakery swah-rey sold their business in October, so Leslie, a veteran air traffic controller, could start a new job.
The RV was destroyed, the rear end of the trailer crushed. Miraculously, no one was injured.
Calling with the one cell phone that survived the crash, the couple – holed up in a Home 2 Suites hotel room in Gulfport with Lad and Rey – described what happened at approximately 2:45 a.m. Dec. 19.
“It’s maybe the first time in my life I can say we were doing everything right,” Leslie said. “Neither of us was falling asleep, we weren’t changing the radio, we weren’t on our phones. We were just on the highway. And we didn’t do more than 55 miles an hour the whole time we drove. I’d never been in an RV before. I’d never been in anything towing a trailer before.”
Her husband was driving; Leslie was in the passenger seat.
“I felt a jolt, but not like a car wreck. Time doesn’t make any sense then, so I guess it was maybe 15 seconds from beginning to end. I said ‘Did somebody hit us?’ Gregg said ‘I don’t know.’ I see him steering left, but we’re clearly going right. We’re in the right lane and we’re moving off the road.
“And it’s really dark here on the highways, because it’s more rural than anything. And then we’re rolling. I remember thinking ‘This isn’t going to work out for us.’ And then we stopped.”
After establishing that they were each unharmed, they wondered about the dogs. Gregg was able to free himself, and as he crawled out of the demolished cab he saw Lad and Rey sitting clear of the wreck. They were OK, and they were waiting for him.
Gregg discovered that Leslie’s long hair was pinning her between what remained of the RV roof and the back of her seat. He ran back to the road, attempting to flag down a passing vehicle. Leslie heard his panicked scream in the dark: “No one’s stopping!”
Then, she said, “Someone did stop – a couple, and she called 911 while he crawled in to try to help me. I told him, ‘You have to cut my hair to get me out of here.’ I found it funny, but he was like ‘No way, I have a wife and I can’t cut your hair!’”
But the good samaritan was unable to otherwise free her. “He saw that he couldn’t move stuff. He had a brand-new pocket knife. We worked together to find where he needed to cut, because he couldn’t see. He didn’t know where my hand was. He would cut some, and I would say ‘That’s not enough; keep cutting. Just grab it and cut it.’” He was on his stomach, Gregg said. He had to crawl in farther to cut the seatbelt.”
She was free and clear when the state trooper arrived, followed by the battalion chief of the Biloxi Fire Department, and an EMT van.
The Ciccones opened the first swah-rey dessert bakery in 2015, on Central, in 2015. A second location followed three years later.
From the start, they knew they wouldn’t make a decent profit until they had four or five locations. But swah-rey was a hit with St. Pete residents, and by 2020 they were working with investors, mapping out a strategy to launch additional storefronts (a third location, on the St. Pete College Gibbs campus, was weeks away from opening). Things were looking good.
“Covid was an effing killer to us,” said Leslie, “like it is with every restaurant. I don’t care what they tell you.
“It’s not just the economics. Covid changes people’s behavior. Our product is a luxury. I always figured, you just work harder, work harder, work harder, it’ll work out.”
That’s not what happened. “The city helped us until they couldn’t any more. The state hasn’t helped us yet, as a small business. They weren’t giving any money. They weren’t doing anything. So how am I ever going to get out of debt?”
Leslie served in the United States Navy from 1987 to ’81, then spent three decades working as an air traffic controller for the Federal Aviation Administration. During those years, she attended the French Culinary Institute, which kindled her dream of opening a restaurant (or a bed and breakfast) one day.
She and Gregg, who’d owned several restaurants in the earliest days of his entrepreneurial career, moved to St. Pete six years ago, and swah-rey was born.
When it became painfully obvious that the bakeries weren’t going to survive the ravages of the pandemic, she began looking into finishing her “tour” with the FAA, as a way to take early retirement.
The administration extended an offer – it probably won’t take more than a year, maybe two, before she’s eligible for retirement and can also receive lifetime medical benefits, they said.
But there were no suitable jobs for her in West Central Florida. The only perfect fit, they told her, was San Diego.
“In the end,” Leslie said, “sooner or later you have to make decisions that maybe you don’t like, but you have to make them.”
The plan was – and is – to return to St. Pete once the San Diego gig has run its course. They still own their Old Southeast home. Leslie’s mom lives just across the street.
And swah-rey? “I think it’s done,” Leslie said. “It’ll be so cost-prohibitive, just the rent. We had really good leases, we were good negotiators. People loved our brand.
“But we tried to sell swah-rey as a brand – I would have loved to start with a built-out bakery and three existing retail spaces, like you’re ahead of the game.
“But, you know, everybody has their own dream. But they’re not necessarily business-minded people, just dream-minded. They didn’t even want swah-rey, even if it came with whatever price they were paying.”
They’re lucky to have escaped alive, they know. And they’re grateful for the aid they received.
But the Ciccones are in a serious bind.
Alongside their swirling, unsteady emotions, said Gregg, “moments of practicality creep in, because that’s the kind of people we are, we’re entrepreneurs. So the problem needs to be solved. By us.
“We get advice from people, but everyone has their own lives and their own problems that they’re solving too. We just have to move west. And the problem is, just how do you get west?”
St. Pete Friends have established a GoFundMe page to help the family get to where they have to go, and to pick up some of the pieces of their lives.
Their San Diego apartment will be ready for move-in Friday. And Leslie is contracted to begin her FAA job Jan. 3.
For now, they’re stuck in the Home 2 Suites with a cell phone and a credit card.
They aren’t allowed to open the trailer, to see what survived, until the tow yard gets paid for hauling and holding it.
The tow people refuse to do that until the insurance claim is settled, which could take weeks.
They can’t get on a commercial flight with two large dogs.
“Quite frankly, what I need is a jet airplane,” said Leslie. “I need a jet to take me, my husband and my dogs to San Diego. That’s not a rational thing, of course.
“Would an RV work? Yeah, but it’s Christmas. Can you get them? No. I’ve tried just to get a cargo van, and there aren’t any on the whole Gulf Coast. They’re being rented out for the holidays, because they’re doing deliveries. There are no rental cars here, either.”
Before they left Florida, the Ciccones made arrangements to ship their own car to California. “It’s paid for,” she explained, then laughed: “But it’s still in Tampa.”
They don’t call them problems, she insisted. They’re “puzzles to be solved.”
They’ll get to San Diego, along with Lad, and Rey, and their car. She’ll get to the airport to start her new FAA job. Somehow, some way, Leslie knows.
“I’m laughing while I say this, but I’ll need a psychologist on staff, too.”