Winter Haven man contracts deadly Vibrio vulnificus bacteria

A fishing trip sent a Polk County man to the hospital. Bacteria in the water got into his body. Days later, he was dead.

It was a case of Vibrio vulnificus, one of more than three dozen in the state so far this year. Now, 56-year-old Richard Corley's heartbroken family has a warning for anyone going near the Gulf.

Corley spent almost every minute of free time hunting or fishing. He knew the water. He knew the dangers. But, even an expert isn't immune.

His family is now holding onto the happy memories. Corley was in third grade when he convinced his brother, Brian to skip the first day of first grade. "He put me on a bicycle and we went to Lake Eloise," Brian Corley recalled.

And, the boys went fishing. "That wasn't the only time we went over," Brian Corley said. "We got away with it more than we got caught."

At age 56, not much had changed for Richard Corley, the man better known as "Pinetree" for his love of outdoors.

"He was a long distance truck driver. When he was off the road, he was either in the woods or at the water," Brian Corley said.

Last month, Richard went on a fishing trip to Estero Bay in Fort Myers. He reeled in several Red Drum. But, he also caught an infection later identified as Vibrio vulnificus.

Sea water containing the bacterium had seeped through a cut on his leg.

"It just spread so quickly," Brian Corley said.

Stunned, his family watched their fisherman fade.

"It had actually spread from his leg, started going up to his groin, on his stomach, his back, and it was moving quickly and they had to induce him into a coma," Brian Corley said.

Hours later, he died.

So far this year, the Florida Department of Health has reported 37 confirmed cases of Vibrio vulnificus and 12 deaths statewide.

"That can enter the body either through eating raw or undercooked shellfish, especially, oysters or if you have an open wound and you enter into warm or brackish seawater,"

Florida Department of Health - Polk County spokesperson Scott Sjoblom said. "It is rare, and if left untreated, it can cause an infection that breaks down the flesh.

"If you are an otherwise healthy person, the risk of infection is low. However, if you have an open cut or wound on your skin, you are at risk," Sjoblom said.

Corley's family is now focused on spreading awareness of the dangers swirling below the surface.

"We tried everything we could to save his life but it just didn't happen. It ended his life... doing what he loved," Brian Corley said.

Corley is even proposing signs, warning about the dangers of Vibrio vulnificus. He'd like to see them posted around boat ramps during the hot months when bacteria is most likely present.