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    Driver dies going wrong way on Skyway

    Motorists in the northbound lanes are forced to swerve or stop to avoid the headlights suddenly speeding toward them.

    [Times photo: Michael Rondou]
    The driver of the white 2002 Chrysler Sebring probably died upon impact with a 1998 black Corvette, whose driver was in critical condition, the Highway Patrol said.

    By CANDACE RONDEAUX, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published November 28, 2002

    A British man driving a rental car the wrong way across the Sunshine Skyway bridge was killed Wednesday when he collided head-on with another vehicle, the Florida Highway Patrol said.

    Several cars were forced to brake or swerve to avoid the wrong-way vehicle as it sped over the Skyway, southbound in the northbound lanes at an estimated 90 mph.

    "It's obvious that he was confused, and being not familiar with the rest areas and byways around here, who knows what happened," said Cpl. Ricky Wells of the Florida Highway Patrol.

    Wells declined to reveal the man's identity but said investigators found identification indicating he was a British citizen. They did not know how long he might have been in this country but said the car was registered to Dollar Rent A Car and that rental documents indicated he had it for two days.

    The collision occurred about 6:30 p.m., a mile south of the center span. The wrong-way vehicle, a white 2002 Chrysler Sebring convertible, sheared off the front off a northbound 1998 black Corvette and severely injured the driver of that car.

    The driver of the Chrysler probably was killed instantly, the Highway Patrol said.

    Russell Schlage, 46, was northbound about a mile south of the main span when he saw the approaching headlights.

    "He came out of nowhere," Schlage said. "All of the sudden, I looked in the mirror, and he was behind me."

    The driver of the Corvette, thought to be in his 20s or 30s, was taken by helicopter to Bayfront Medical Center. Although his identity also was unconfirmed, the Highway Patrol said he was in critical condition with a broken arm, a broken ankle and other injuries.

    The incident began near the north end of the Skyway.

    Investigators think the white Chrysler convertible drove the wrong way up an exit ramp at a scenic rest area.

    The driver then drove against traffic at a speed quickly reaching 85-90 mph, the Highway Patrol said. Although several cars were forced to evade the Chrysler, no other injuries or accidents were reported.

    Schlage called 911 when he saw the oncoming vehicle.

    About that time, a Florida Highway Patrol trooper got a call about the same car. Seconds later, the wrong-way driver whizzed by Sgt. Robert Knight's patrol car, and Knight pursued.

    "At first when the call went out I thought he was in the southbound lane, but then I saw him pass me," said Knight. "He whizzed right by. It happened so fast."

    Seconds later, the Chrysler plowed into the nortbound Corvette.

    Northbound traffic on the Skyway was backed up as far as 5 miles as the Highway Patrol continued to work the accident some three hours later.

    "It's sad," Gibson said. "Those sports cars just don't hold up very well under that impact at those kind of speeds."

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