ATLANTA – Rafael Diaz Jr. was driving his oil tanker through an Atlanta neighborhood this week when a bottle rocket flew into the cab and struck him in the face, sending the truck careening out of control.
What happened next was even more disturbing: The same band of teens who shot the firework quickly swarmed the overturned rig, dragged Diaz out, stole his wallet and beat him senseless.
"The kids are either doped up or drunk," said Bill Nothdorft, Diaz's supervisor at Penn Tank Lines (search). "They're just creating their own good time — a good time gone bad."
Diaz, 29, remained in critical condition Thursday — four days after the attack. Following seven hours of brain surgery, his head remained swollen, Nothdorft said.
Police say Diaz was the hapless victim of a Fourth of July offensive against Atlanta drivers, with about a dozen teens hurling explosives, rocks and jagged chunks of concrete at passing vehicles on a busy highway.
Police have cited an 18-year-old with reckless conduct in the case, and they are searching for other suspects, including a 16-year-old, said police spokeswoman Sylvia Abernathy.
After the firework exploded below Diaz's left eye, his truck went hurtling down a grassy incline until it finally halted in a grove of pine trees just 50 yards from an apartment building. Diaz said the teens then pulled him out and "were punching him in the back of the head, trying to rob him," according to Nothdorft.
Hours earlier, a tractor-trailer driver called police after his vehicle was hit by a slew of bricks, but the juveniles eluded officers when they arrived at the scene, said Atlanta police Sgt. Kevin Iosty.
The teens returned, and didn't stop harassing drivers even after Diaz's truck went off the road. Only minutes later, a fellow Penn Tank Lines driver had to weave his own truck across the four-lane highway to dodge the makeshift artillery, Nothdorft said.
"It's one thing for the kids to do what they're doing, but it's another thing when the city of Atlanta doesn't take care of the streets like they're supposed to," Nothdorft said. "If they had responded in the proper manner, this would never have occurred."
Iosty said police handled the complaints appropriately. "We take it very seriously. Unless their sitting right there when it's happening, it takes a few minutes to respond," he said.