Crash inquiry turns to median
A day after eight Valrico teens in a Jeep careen off it, crews add yellow paint and a reflector pole to the divider.
By ABBIE VANSICKLE, KEVIN GRAHAM and SAUNDRA AMRHEIN
Published October 9, 2006
VALRICO — A newly built, unmarked concrete median became the focus of attention Monday as investigators examined a fatal car crash that killed a Valrico teenager and injured seven others.
Early Sunday morning, 17-year-old Tyler Clark’s Jeep struck the median, sending his vehicle into a tree and ejecting some of the passengers.
Relatives and members of the public called the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office and county officials to complain that the new median is dangerous.
“It has no markings on it,” said Anthony Terlizzi, the father of one of the victims. “If you didn’t know that road, you would never see it.”
By Monday afternoon, crews had added yellow paint, sparkling dust and a reflector pole to the median, which carves out a turn lane for a new development near Bloomingdale Avenue and Bell Shoals Road.
Mark Creager, the development’s owner, said the county approved plans for the median and never asked that it be painted or marked. The median was just installed last week.
“Somebody just missed it,” he said.
County officials could not say if plans called for paint. Bob Campbell, acting director of the county’s Planning and Growth Management Department, said they would have more information today.
Just after midnight Sunday, Tyler and seven friends squeezed into his Jeep for a run to McDonald’s. Eight people got into the vehicle, made to seat four or five comfortably, said sheriff’s spokeswoman Debbie Carter. One girl sat on a lap, another sat on the console.
None wore seat belts.
Terlizzi said most of the teens had gathered at Cody Neimeier’s home at the Bloomingwood Apartments about 8 p.m. to hang out.
His son Christopher called home about 11 p.m., right at curfew, to ask if he could spend the night. It wasn’t the first time he had done this; his father said yes. “It was a sleepover,” the elder Terlizzi said.
The teens were headed west on Bloomingdale Avenue, when Tyler’s Jeep brushed the median, deputies said. He veered sharply to the right and rammed into a tree alongside the road.
The impact threw some of the passengers from the car. Investigators say some of the teens may have pulled friends out, too. Tyler was pronounced dead at the scene.
Nearly all of Tyler’s passengers remained at local hospitals Monday.
At St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital, Ryan Caldwell, 17, was in fair condition and Shane Hadsell, 16, was in critical condition. Hospital spokeswoman Amy Gall said 15-year-old Brooke Tappen’s family had asked that no information be given out on her condition.
At Tampa General Hospital, Angela Canessa, 16, was upgraded from critical to fair condition, said spokeswoman Ellen Fiss. Morgan Blazek, 16, was released from Tampa General on Sunday evening.
At the crash site, a makeshift memorial of balloons, notes and candles was set up, and dozens of community members stopped by.
Behind the tree in sight of the memorial, work continued at the new shopping center, a two-story building set to house a tanning salon, a bank, a coffee shop and a day care.
Creager, the development’s owner, was among those working at the plaza.
He asked workers to paint the median Monday in response to concerns from the county. Before the accident, crews had no plans to paint it because the county never requested it, he said.
County officials could not confirm that Monday.
Robert Kouveras, a senior engineering specialist for the county, met with the developer Monday after getting calls from the Sheriff’s Office and community members about the median.
After the accident, Kouveras said he looked at the plans and didn’t see any painting or marking requirements. He said he would have to review the plans. “I know that my bosses are going to require information,” he said.
He said that most medians are painted.
The questions arose as classmates of the injured held a memorial service at Bloomingdale High School, remembering Tyler and praying for the others.
Hillsborough schools social worker Flossie Parsley said that at least three dozen students asked for one-on-one counseling.
“There’s a lot of unanswered questions,” Parsley said. “There’s a lot of normal reactions and a lot of anger. You see the gamut.”
About 50 students gathered Monday afternoon around Tyler’s empty parking space, marked with an orange cone in the student parking lot at Bloomingdale. Students’ writing covered the concrete: RIP. Tyler’s Spot. Much Love.
Principal Mark West stood in a pickup truck bed facing the students and updated them on the other students’ conditions.
Senior Austin Lewis, 17, got up and addressed the crowd, urging them to wear seat belts. “I was there, and I saw the flags that marked the bodies. They were pretty far from the vehicle. I don’t care if you guys don’t like wearing (seat belts).”
After the memorial, students lingered around the parking lot. They held each other, crying. One played a few notes on his guitar before driving off.
Austin said he and Tyler were accepted to the Universal Technical Institute in Orlando. “He planned on going to automotive college with me.”
Tyler, his friend said, loved the Jeep — decked out inside with camouflage — and won first place for interiors at a car show at Riverview High School within the past year or so.
On Monday, his car-show trophy sat atop his empty desk.
Emily Watts said Tyler loved to go to local car shows and was known for his upbeat attitude. Even before Tyler got the Jeep, it was all he could talk about — what he wanted to do with it.
“That was his life — automotive,” Watts said.
Tyler belonged to the auto tech class and the auto club at Bloomingdale. He also was part of a county club called CARS, Cops Against Racing On Streets.
Watts said he was involved with promoting seat-belt laws.
Tyler once joined some female friends who had lost friends in car accidents and spent a week wearing T-shirts that promoted seat-belt use.
“He was very passionate about his Jeep,” friend Joey Pursino, 18, said. “I still didn’t get it till today. I saw his seat empty. I thought he’d walk in with a big smile on his face and say, 'Gotcha.’ But he never walked in.”
Times researcher Cathy Wos and staff writer Helen Anne Travis contributed to this report. Abbie VanSickle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 226-3373.
[Last modified October 9, 2006, 23:20:22]
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