OKALOOSA ISLAND — One local businessman is being hailed a hero after helping hundreds cross the Santa Rosa Sound following the Brooks Bridge closure Saturday.
Ben Merrell, owner of Power Up Watersports on Okaloosa Island, said a bride and groom and a group of nine-year-old birthday party goers were just some of the interesting characters he taxied between Okaloosa Island and Fort Walton Beach using his pontoon boats from 8 p.m. Saturday until 1 a.m. Sunday.
"We were down for an adventure," Merrell said. "There were lots of drunk people. One guy told me to 'bring it in' for a hug and ended up kissing my neck. Everyone was just so happy."
Merrell said his night as a makeshift ferry captain began following a phone call from his buddy and employee PJ Roberts. Roberts said a barge had just struck the Brooks Bridge, and the Florida Department of Transportation closed the bridge to all traffic until it could be confirmed as stable.
"Some of my employees called and started telling us there were crowds of people trying to get across," Merrell said. "I headed down there and PJ showed up and started bring all of his friends across the water. I said I would stay and help, too."
Merrell's wife, Amber Merrell, posted on Facebook letting everyone know Power Up Watersports was offering free rides. Merrell said his phone never stopped ringing from then on.
"I started at Fubar because some of my friends Facebooked us," Merrell said. "I didn't know where to take them because we were told we couldn't go underneath the bridge. I went over to Giovonni's One89 and a groomsman came out and asked us what we were doing. I ended up taking the bride and groom and everyone, it was like 30 something people, over to the Island. We started dropping people off there after that."
Laren Shipp of Fort Walton Beach was just one of those who took Merrell up on his Facebook offer. Shipp said she tried to go home by taking the Mid-Bay Bridge in Destin, but was caught in the deadlocked traffic that stretched for miles.
"The traffic was unreal," Shipp said. "I just wanted to get home. I took the chance that he was still offering rides and sped to that location as fast as I could. It was probably just a two minute ride, but everyone was in a great mood because we were getting home.
"He was a lifesaver. I can't believe he did that out of the kindness of his own heart. He wasn't charging anything, but I tipped him $20. I went and picked up my car the next day."
In all, Merrell said it was approximately 250 people he and Roberts taxied across. People tipped the pair a total of $600.
"At this point it doesn’t’ feel like a charitable thing because people were so generous," Merrell said. "We took some of the money and bought pizza at Fubar for all of the workers."