Two Florida citrus execs killed in Nicaragua helicopter crash

A helicopter crash in Nicaragua has claimed the lives of two local men. As executives in Florida's citrus industry, they dedicated decades of their lives to their work, growing the industry into what it is today.

Jim Horrisberger of Lakeland and Phil Tope of Tampa were in Nicaragua on business, checking on some orange groves. Travel was a big part of the job.

When you talk about people who've made a permanent mark on Florida's citrus industry, you're sure to hear a few names. One of them is Jim Horrisberger.

"If you talk to the guy, he is very humble, very relaxed," said Andy Taylor of Peace River Citrus Products. "Jim bought more Florida oranges and grapefruits than anyone in the industry."

Another name is Phil Tope.

"He'd give you the shirt off his back - just a great, honorable guy and very well respected through the industry as a man of his word," Taylor said.

Horrisberger served as a Florida Citrus Commissioner and North American Procurement Director for the Coca-Cola Company. "Just a class act guy," Taylor said.

Tope spent many years as Chief Executive at Tampa Juice Service.

"While Phil was a competitor, he was a very respected competitor," Taylor said.

Back in 2004, Hurricane Charley left the tank farm at Peace River Citrus badly damaged. Taylor feared he would lose millions of gallons of juice. That is, until Tope called.

"He said, look, I'm your competitor but I'm your friend here. I've got tank space. Ship juice to me, I will store if for you. When you fix your tanks, I will ship you the juice back," Taylor recalled. "That's exactly what we did."

For Tope and Horrisberger, citrus was their passion. Sadly, the men lost their lives working to improve the juice shipped to Florida.

Tuesday, while examining orange groves in Nicaragua, their helicopter crashed in the San Juan river, between San Carlos and Managua. Horrisberger and Tope were killed, along with two others. Officials blame poor visibility for causing the crash.

"Right now, the industry is hurting and it's a very difficult time," Taylor said.

Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam said "their loss sends shock waves throughout this small, tightly knit industry."

From the orange groves to the neighborhood, George Robertson-Burnett knew Horrisberger best as the warm, welcoming man next-door.

"I was talking to him the other night and he said he was going to be on the trip," Robertson-Burnett said.

He's still in shock after receiving a text message from Horrisberger's wife Sue Tuesday night.

"Coming from the United Kingdom as I do, we use the term 'gentleman' very infrequently," Robertson-Burnett said. "When you meet a gentleman, you know you've met one. And, I certainly met one in Jim."

Sue Horrisberger is in Minnesota where the rest of the family is gathering. She said, "Jim was a good man who treated everyone fairly... very much a family man who was so proud of his children."