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Families reel after fiery crash kills 5

By KEVIN GRAHAM, CARRIE WEIMAR, JAMAL THALJI, and RICK GERSHMAN
Published February 12, 2007


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Ashley Blagburn
Garth Durgan

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Richard Forbes
Jennifer Sawyer

THONOTOSASSA - Behind one wheel, a young, single mother-to-be who just got a crib for her unborn child.

Behind the other, a father of three who worked on elevators for a living and fished in his spare time.

Also there, two 19-year-old passengers. One who skipped a hunting trip this weekend to stay home and spend time with friends. And an older pal.

All five met early Sunday in a fiery head-on collision along a two-lane road in northern Hillsborough County, the Florida Highway Patrol said.

All five died on the spot.

"Everybody's in shock," said Gary Crabtree, stepfather of Ashley D. Blagburn, one of the drivers.

Four friends got together late Saturday evening at the Dallas Bull, a popular country nightclub in eastern Hillsborough, relatives said. Blagburn, 19, was behind the wheel of the 1999 Chrysler Sebring as they headed north, back to her place in Dade City to watch movies.

With her were 19-year-old Richard Forbes of Plant City, 19-year-old Jennifer Sawyer of Dover and 33-year-old Garth Durgan of Plant City.

Heading south, passing cars on U.S. 301 was Danny S. Lamb Jr., 33, of Plant City. Witnesses told troopers that Lamb had passed several cars in his 2006 Ford F-150 pickup on the stretch near the Hillsborough River State Park around 2:30 a.m.

Just south of McIntosh Road, Lamb again pulled into the northbound lane, into Blagburn and her friends.

That stretch of 301, a main artery, has "good visibility in all directions," said FHP spokesman Larry Coggins Jr.

"It's pretty safe to say it was driver negligence," Coggins said.

Lamb wasn't wearing a seat belt, troopers said, and was pitched from his truck as it burst into flames.

Investigators have to wait for toxicology reports from Lamb's autopsy to determine whether alcohol was involved, Coggins said. That could take several weeks.

Meanwhile, five families in Hillsborough and Pasco counties are left to grieve.

Crabtree can't think of Blagburn, his stepdaughter, without seeing her face all lit up.

"She was always smiling, always smiling," he said. "She liked to be around people. I mean she was real sociable."

And after moving to Florida two months ago, she had plenty to talk about.

A new job. A pending promotion. New friends. And a boy, Tyson, due this summer.

"She started flowering," her stepfather said. "She started doing her thing."

Blagburn was born and raised in Murphysboro, Ill. When she left to be closer to her mother, Tina Crabtree, in Zephyrhills, her stepfather said, it was for the best.

"When she got pregnant, she wanted to be with her mom," he said. "It was a mess up there. I'm not sure what went wrong."

The father of Blagburn's child wasn't in the picture, Crabtree said. So he and his wife of nine years did all they could for Blagburn.

She got an apartment in Dade City. She was filling it with everything she could find that bore the Disney label. She also got a job at the Flying J truck stop in Seffner.

"Everybody liked her out there, everybody knew her," Crabtree said. "She was a hard worker."

Five months pregnant, she had worked her way from the register to accounting. She was to start training for her promotion today. "She was ecstatic, that's all she talked about," her stepfather said. "That and the baby. She was proud."

At the Flying J, where Blagburn and Sawyer worked together, relief manager Angela Kennedy said "they were good girls and they'd be missed."

Outside the store, patron Kenny Arden said Sawyer waited on him a few times in the store's restaurant, the Country Market Restaurant & Buffet.

"I can't believe it," said Arden, 41. "She was a spark plug, that girl, just a little firecracker. I can't even imagine that we lost her.

"Ain't nothing right then. Ain't nothing right in a world we lose a kid like that."

Family members congregated Sunday afternoon at the Sawyer family's home off Kirkland Road in Dover. Her sister Nancy, aunt Cindy Sawyer and cousin Brande Sawyer said Jennifer Sawyer was a warm-hearted and sassy girl who worked hard and loved her family.

"You could argue with her one second and go shopping with her the next," Brande Sawyer said.

Like the others relatives of the victims, Tim Forbes thought of the good memories during this time of tragedy. He sat on his couch Sunday afternoon, just below a family photo of his wife and six children. He clasped his hands as he spoke about his son, Richard.

"Rick was pretty well a free spirit. He was a great kid," Tim Forbes said. "That might sound a little biased coming from me. But he was."

Richard Forbes loved hunting, his father said. He was supposed to be in Georgia over the weekend on a hunting trip with a friend but changed his mind.

"He was great with a bow and arrow," Tim Forbes said.

When he wasn't out mudding in his truck or riding the mechanical bull at the Dallas Bull, Richard Forbes spent time in nature. His father said he would walk through nearby fields in his rural neighborhood, and the cows would all walk up to him.

"He just had a way about him," Tim Forbes said. "There weren't too many things that he was afraid to do. A lot of times he had me worried. But I never figured it would end like this."

"It's your worst nightmare," said his mother, Penny Forbes.

Few details were available Sunday about Durgan, the 33-year-old in the car with the teens. Relatives of the teens didn't know much about him, though some had heard he worked near the Flying J.

FHP troopers said he had been living with an aunt and a girlfriend in Plant City. Attempts to reach people who knew him were unsuccessful.

Lamb, the driver of the Ford truck, was a married father of three young children, ages 2 to 10, his sister-in-law, Tanya Wynn, said Sunday.

She described him as a fun-loving man who was devoted to his children and his wife of 10 years, Melissa.

"He was a wonderful father," Wynn said. "He was just a very happy-go-lucky person who loved his family."

Lamb worked for an elevator repair company and loved to fish. A longtime Plant City resident, he lived with his wife behind her mother and father's house off Five Acre Road. A swing set and a child's playhouse sit beside a chicken coop and a meat smoker on the front yard.

Family members were dazed Sunday as they tried to absorb the news. Wynn said she's unsure where her brother-in-law was going at the time of the crash.

"We don't have any idea," she said.

Times staffers Brian Cassella, Carolyn Edds and Jacob Fries contributed to this story. Kevin Graham can be reached at (813) 226-3433 or kgraham@sptimes.com.

The victims

Danny S. Lamb Jr., 33, of Plant City was a married father of three young children and an avid outdoorsman.

Ashley Blagburn, 19, of Zephyrhills was five months pregnant and thrilled with her future.

Richard Forbes, 19, of Plant City canceled a weekend's hunting expedition to Georgia with friends.

Jennifer Sawyer, 19, was born and raised in Hillsborough County. She was saving up for a car.

Garth Durgan, 33, of Plant City had been living with a girlfriend and an aunt.

Recent teen driving deaths

Car crashes are the leading cause of death for 15- to 20-year-olds. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 13 percent of all drivers in fatal crashes were between 15 and 20 in 2004, the most recent year for which figures are available.

In west-central Florida:

Jan. 16: In St. Petersburg, Charles Tyrone Link, 17, was driving a Jeep Cherokee south on Alcazar Way when he lost control and slipped off the road, police say. He was thrown from the vehicle and killed. Three other teenagers in the vehicle were not seriously injured.

Oct. 25: In Zephyrhills, Demetries Bradberry, 15, was driving an Isuzu Trooper when he swerved and hit a tree. His 19-year-old friend Emanuel Kelly was ejected and killed.

Oct. 18: In Gibsonton, 16-year-old Andrew Leight, driving his father's truck, clipped 15-year-old Fredrick Gardner's bike, killing him.

Oct. 13: In Ruskin, Charlotte Marie Hoffman's Ford Mustang flew off a curve, hit a tree and broke in two pieces, killing Callie Lynn Roberts, her 16-year-old passenger.

Oct. 8: In Valrico, Tyler Clark's Jeep hit an unmarked median and veered off the road into a tree, killing him and injuring seven other teens. Tyler was 17.

[Last modified February 12, 2007, 09:37:46]


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