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Girl hit by truck; driver charged

Police say the pickup driver ran a red light, critically injuring a Chamberlain High student.

Published January 5, 2006

[Times photo: Joseph Garnett Jr.]
Pauline Spears speaks to reporters about her 15-year-old daughter, Katie Wood, at St. Joseph's Children's Hospital on Wednesday, while her husband, Wayne Spears, and friend Sandra Cullaro comfort her. Katie was in critical condition after being hit by a pickup.

TAMPA - Katie Wood knew to be careful crossing Busch Boulevard on her way to Chamberlain High School.

Her mother and stepfather say they always reminded her to look both ways and to use the crosswalk.

Katie, a 15-year-old sophomore, followed the rules early Wednesday, but police said a 53-year-old pickup truck driver didn't. The driver, on his way to work, ran a red light at Busch Boulevard and N Boulevard, Tampa police said.

Alfredo Bernal's gray 2000 Isuzu pickup hit Katie just before she reached the curb at the edge of Chamberlain's campus. Bernal was within the speed limit, driving between 35 and 40 mph, police said.

But the impact sent Katie, who is less than 5 feet tall, flying more than 30 feet across N Boulevard, said police Lt. Bret Bartlett. Several Chamberlain students watched in horror.

Paramedics rushed Katie to St. Joseph's Children's Hospital, where she underwent exploratory surgery. Wednesday evening she was in critical condition in the intensive care unit, with serious injuries to her head and kidneys, said Dr. John Haffner. Haffner did not elaborate on her condition, though he said doctors decided after the surgery that they could not further operate.

Police charged Bernal, of 8307 Claremont St., with running the red light. Because he was not speeding or otherwise driving recklessly, investigators concluded they had no cause to charge him criminally, said police spokeswoman Laura McElroy.

"He may have been careless, but it doesn't rise to the level of reckless and wanton disregard for human life," McElroy said.

State records show Bernal has no criminal history, and his driving record is clean. Bernal could not be reached Wednesday, but he told investigators that he did not notice the light had turned red.

Bernal's sister-in-law, Betty Daza, told the Times that Bernal was in shock and was saying little after the accident.

"He said if he has to give his life for the girl, he would do it," Daza said. "We are really sorry. He's really sorry."

She said that her family planned to hold a prayer vigil for Katie's recovery.

"He should not be free," said Katie's mother, Pauline Spears, during an interview in the hospital lobby. She cried through much of the meeting with reporters, but her voice rose and grew stronger as she spoke about her anger at Bernal.

"I want this guy to pay," said Spears, 36, a homemaker who cares for her two youngest children, 2 and 4.

"He was wrong. My daughter was doing the right thing, following the rules. He should serve time for what he did. It's not fair."

Katie, a special-needs student who is enrolled in regular and exceptional education classes, usually takes a bus from her home in the 8000 block of N Boulevard to Chamberlain High.

But Katie's learning disability does not affect her physically, and a few times a month, Katie leaves the house before 7 a.m. and walks the mile or so to campus, Spears said.

Still, Katie's mother and stepfather, Wayne Spears, worried about traffic at the intersection.

The Sheriff's Office, which keeps records of the intersections with the most traffic crashes, could not provide a tally of incidents at that location Wednesday.

But even Katie's brother Ron Wood, 17, was wary of crossing Busch after seeing a few drivers run red lights.

"I've had a few close calls," said the Chamberlain High senior. "The drivers just don't care."

Katie, determined to maintain independence despite of her disability, had proven she could make the trip, her mother said.

"She's 15," Spears said. "She wanted to be like all the other children."

Sandra Cullaro, a teacher's aide at Chamberlain, said other students like Katie because she is friendly, outgoing and always helpful.

"Once she smiled, she had you," Cullaro said.

School district spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said administrators got on the P.A. system and told students about the accident, and the school crisis team went to Chamberlain to counsel students and staff.

In a letter home to parents, the school included safety tips for students on foot.

In August, Wharton High student Elysha Jennings was critically injured when she ran in front of a car while crossing 40th Street south of Busch Boulevard to catch a school bus.

Times staff writers Melanie Ave, Justin George and Letitia Stein and researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at 813 226-3373 or

[Last modified January 5, 2006, 01:17:09]

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