Accident critically injures man
By JULIE CHURCH and ED QUIOCO
PALM HARBOR -- In a scene familiar to anyone who drives on U.S. 19, a minivan carrying five men to work Thursday morning tried to edge across three lanes of oncoming traffic, two of which had stopped to let it through.
But a vehicle in the outside lane did not stop, hitting the van broadside just north of Nebraska Avenue. One passenger was ejected from the minivan, which then rolled onto him, leaving the man critically injured. More than a dozen bystanders lifted the van from the injured man.
His four colleagues also went to local hospitals with lesser injuries.
"It was by far the worst accident I've ever seen," said Mary Daugherty, a nurse who was returning to her Largo home from work at Community Hospital of New Port Richey when she witnessed the accident and stopped to help.
"A group of people actually lifted the van off the man," Daugherty said. "I checked his pulse, but there was blood gushing from his ear and it looked bad."
The passenger, Dariusz Pasierb, 27, was sitting in the middle seat of the van behind the driver and not wearing a seat belt, according to the Florida Highway Patrol. He was flown to Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg, where he was listed in critical condition Thursday evening.
Troopers say the green 1997 Nissan Quest minivan in which Pasierb was riding attempted to turn west into the Park Avenue Plaza at 34350 U.S. 19 N when it was struck on the passenger side by a red 1995 Ford Windstar heading south in the right turn lane.
The Nissan van was turned onto its side by the impact and Pasierb was ejected through a driver's side window. A second man, Slawomir Slowa, who was wearing a seat belt, was also ejected from the van, troopers said, but did not suffer injuries that were as serious."A seat belt made all the difference in this case," said District Chief Ron Gray of Palm Harbor Fire Rescue, who was at the scene.
Slowa, 28, who was sitting in the rear seat of the van, was also airlifted to Bayfront Medical Center, according to troopers. His injuries were not considered life threatening.
Two other passengers, Tomasz Czyz, 25, and Crzegorz Pacyniak, 25, and the driver of the Nissan, Adam Szweda, 25, were taken by ambulance to Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital in Tarpon Springs. They were treated and released Thursday afternoon, according to Jerry Touchton, a hospital spokesman.
The driver of the Ford van, Theresa Presley, 36, of Holiday, works as a dental assistant for Dr. Larry Lieberman of Palm Harbor. She was also on her way to work when the accident occurred.
Presley received scrapes and bruises to her arm and received medical treatment at the scene.
"My daughter is obviously very upset by the whole thing," said Val Swider of Holiday, who is Presley's father.
The five men in the Nissan van are employees of a Polish company called Soft Systems, which does computer programming on a contract basis for Soft Computer Consultants (SCC), said Armin Hakim, the company's vice president of administration. SCC develops and sells computer software systems to the health care industry.
Depending on the number of projects it has, SCC uses overseas businesses to supply computer programmers, Hakim said. The programmers come to the United States and stay for a few months before heading to their home country.
"We are the only family they have here," Hakim said. "We had to go (to the hospital) and make sure they were fine and in every sense, be there for them."
SCC executives contacted the programmers' families overseas and are trying to help them come to this country to visit their loved ones in the hospital, Hakim said. Although the programmers work for another company, many SCC employees consider them friends and co-workers.
"It has been a huge distraction," Hakim said. "Our employees are very concerned."
With about 450 employees and yearly revenues of $40-million, SCC is one of the top vendors of laboratory and clinical information systems in the country. Founded in 1979, SCC moved to Florida from New York in 1992. About three years later it settled in the Palm Harbor location, which is its headquarters.
The private company is close-knit and holds several yearly functions such as picnics, luncheons and corporate parties for employees.
"It's just not about numbers for us," Hakim said.
The five programmers live together in a home in Dunedin. The company owns the van they were using to commute to work.
"Every morning they leave together and every evening they come home together," said neighbor Karen Allen.
The accident Thursday occurred as the result of a scene that happens dozens if not hundreds of times a day along U.S. 19. Cars attempt to make a left turn through median openings across three or more lanes of heavy traffic.
Two-thirds of the fatal accidents on U.S. 19 occur in areas, such as median openings and driveway entrances, where drivers "were trying to whip across multiple lanes of traffic," said County Commissioner Karen Seel, who spearheaded a U.S. 19 task force.
The task force recommended -- and the state Department of Transportation has agreed -- to close some median openings and channelize other medians on U.S. 19, said DOT spokeswoman Marian Pscion. The goal of that project, which will begin in February, is to limit drivers from being able to cut across multiple lanes.
Toni Gugliotta, a Florida Highway Patrol community service officer who works in North Pinellas, has this advice for drivers trying to cross U.S. 19: If the break in traffic doesn't seem big enough, then it's better to wait a few more minutes.
"If you're in doubt, don't do it," she said.
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