Moe Hoq came to open a Marathon gas station in Riviera Beach early Tuesday morning expecting his normal routine of turning off the alarm and putting on a pot of coffee.
But an unusual blinking red light — the fire alarm — caught his attention. When Hoq walked over and turned on the kitchen light, he saw a man in a pair of shorts and sneakers stuck in a ceiling vent, his legs dangling.
“His legs, they weren’t moving,” Hoq said. “Just hanging there.”
Unsure whether the man suspended from the ceiling was dead or alive, Hoq ran across the room and called the police.
“I open this store every day, 365 days a year and when I came in today, I just did what I always do,” Hoq said. “But I’ve never seen anything like that in my entire life.”
Riviera Beach Police spokeswoman Rose Ann Brown later confirmed 45-year-old Derrick Collins had died. Police believe Collins was trying to break into the business through an air vent on the roof, got stuck and suffocated.
Collins was thin, Hoq said. But the small, metal vent — maybe 16 square inches to one square foot a straight path from the roof into the kitchen, according to the owner — got tighter as he descended.
“He got stuck and he died in that vent,” Brown said.
Investigators suspect that while the man’s body was lodged in the vent, the air flow was cut off and he suffocated, she added, although they hadn’t yet inspected the body.
They don’t know exactly when the attempted burglary occurred, but know it was sometime between Monday evening and early Tuesday, Brown said.
“Whatever crime he was trying to do, we would never hope for him to die,” said Paul Chowdhury, owner of the gas station. “I’m very sorry for him and his family.”
Collins served time in state prison four times, most recently for burglary and grand theft from October 2010 to July 2014. He was also arrested Aug. 13 for trespassing and possession of drug paraphernalia, according to court records.
At around 10:30 a.m., police were still assessing the best way to remove Collins’ body, Brown said. They brought in West Palm Beach Fire Rescue and attempted to remove the body from above the air vent using a crane.
Five hours after Hoq found Collins, his body was removed from inside the business and carried out in a body bag.
Chowdhury, still in disbelief, reopened the gas station around noon.
“I’ve never seen something like that before,” Chowdhury said. “I’m still shaking.”