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3 killed, hundreds ensnared

The accident, which the Florida Highway Patrol was still investigating, shut down the eastbound lanes for more than four hours.

By BRADY DENNIS
Published September 3, 2003

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DOVER - A head-on collision Tuesday on Interstate 4 killed three people and brought the highway to a standstill for hours.

The accident occurred about 3:45 p.m., just before the afternoon rush hour and the arrival of a massive thunderstorm over Tampa Bay.

Florida Highway Patrol troopers said Diane Howell, 47, of Riverview was headed west in her 1989 Toyota Camry when she crossed the grassy median into the eastbound lanes just west of the McIntosh Road exit.

She plowed head-on into a 2002 Ford Escape, killing two people from Bartow: driver Gloria Stephens, 56, and passenger Jessie Stephens, 60. Howell also died in the wreck.

Two other men were involved in the four-car accident Tuesday. Dewey Crumley, 57, of Plant City, was driving home in his 1996 Ford F150 pickup when he also was hit. The truck rolled.

"It happened so quick," Crumley said Tuesday night. "I don't think I put my brakes on or anything. I thought that was it for me. I thought, "Well, this is it.' "

Crumley kicked out a passenger window and crawled to safety. He escaped with scrapes and bruises.

"I'm pretty thankful I'm still alive," he said. "And I'm so sorry about those other people."

The other driver involved, Darry Reid, 37, of South Carolina, was hauling a load of recycled plastic in his semitrailer truck from Sarasota to Orlando. He was not injured.

"All of a sudden, cars started crashing into each other," said Reid, who has been a truck driver for 17 years. "I slammed on my brakes and tried to get out of the way. I've never had a wreck, period."

FHP spokesman Lt. Sterling King said it's too early to speculate about what caused Howell to cross the median into oncoming traffic.

"It's kind of horrific," he said of the accident. "Any time you have one (fatality), it's one too many."

The crash happened just west of Plant City on a stretch of highway where scenes of city life give way to stretches of live oaks and strawberry fields.

The accident shut down eastbound lanes of I-4 for more than four hours, and westbound lanes slowed to a standstill. People stopped their cars under overpasses and read the newspaper.

Roads around nearby Brandon and Dover were clogged with commuters trying to avoid the scene. Traveling through the area took hours rather than minutes.

A tow truck driver wearing a Dale Earnhardt racing cap asked someone how the wreck happened and how many people had died. He stood in the rain, surveying the scene.

"That's fate, man," he said. "That's fate."

[Last modified September 3, 2003, 01:32:04]


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