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    Truck driver jailed after wild crash

    By CHRIS TISCH

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 17, 2001


    CLEARWATER -- Parked at a red light and looking forward to an afternoon at the beach, Chris Damico saw the speeding 13-ton truck coming toward her and knew it wouldn't make the turn.

    Her three children -- ages 5, 8 and 10 -- were in the back seat. The 30-foot truck was coming right for their car, which was facing north at the intersection of Cleveland Street and Pierce Boulevard.

    "I prayed," said Damico, a vacationer from Wisconsin. "We heard him squeal and trying to make the turn, but I knew he wasn't going to make it."

    Moments later, the truck's front wheel scraped against the back of Damico's rental car, a red Dodge Intrepid. The truck missed slamming into the rear driver's side door by a foot. Damico's 8-year-old son, Dustin Stefanski, watched wide-eyed from the driver's side back seat as the truck just missed him.

    The truck hit a traffic sign, snapped it like a pencil, then rear-ended a Lexus and spun it into the other lane.

    It then plowed into a silver Mercury Grand Marquis, pushing it backward into a chain-reaction wreck that involved another three vehicles.

    The result: Eight people injured, seven vehicles damaged, a snarl of traffic for hours and the arrest of the truck driver.

    None of the injuries was life-threatening, which witnesses said was astonishing.

    "Everybody is very fortunate," said Clearwater police spokesman Wayne Shelor.

    Police said the truck driver, Peter James Harris, 21, of 120 Brightwater Drive stole the truck from a job site on Clearwater Beach, then drove it across Memorial Causeway. Witnesses said he did not slow down when he tried to turn right onto Pierce Boulevard about 12:30 p.m.

    Police say besides stealing the truck and driving unsafely, Harris also did not have a Florida drivers license, had drivers licenses suspended in two states and was under the influence of drugs when the crash occurred.

    Investigators charged him with driving under the influence, grand theft, driving with a suspended license and reckless driving. More charges are possible, Shelor said.

    However, Harris apparently was benevolent after the truck theft, picking up hitchhiker Dennis Toomer as he left Clearwater Beach. Toomer had a front-row seat in the incident.

    "It was like he was on a death mission or something," Toomer said. "He didn't say nothing."

    Toomer said Harris didn't hit the brakes when he reached the end of the causeway, though he told him to "slow down, slow down." Next thing Toomer knew, he saw "nothing but the a-- end of a car.

    "He wouldn't get off the accelerator," he added. "The next thing you know, we were plowing into everyone."

    Shelor said the chain of events began at 195 Devon Drive on Clearwater Beach when Harris saw keys jangling from the ignition of the truck, which is owned by M&M Insulation in Tampa. Workers had seen Harris in the area, then heard the truck start up and speed away, he said.

    "He told investigators it was his instinct that drove him to steal the truck," said Shelor, adding that Harris told investigators "his instinct" also drove him to plow into the cars on the other side of causeway.

    Police began searching for the truck, which was half-filled with insulation, then heard about the accident over the radio.

    Just about that time, Chris Damico -- who is vacationing in Florida and is marrying her fiance today -- was pulling her children from the back seat of her smashed rental car as liquid poured from under the hood of the truck. She feared an explosion.

    Minutes later, her children recalled seeing the truck barreling toward them.

    "I saw the truck, he jumped the curve and hit us," Dustin, 8, said. "The tire was not even a foot behind me."

    "It kind of freaked me out," said his 5-year-old brother, Jacob Lynch, who tugged at his black Pokemon T-shirt as he spoke. "I thought it was going to tip over on our car."

    Chimed in 10-year-old sister Casey Stefanski: "I thought it was going to crush us."

    "I wish I was strong," Jacob said. "I would have picked up that semi and thrown it."

    Most of the hit cars were oversized luxury cars that took the blows well and protected the people inside. The trunk of the Lexus was curled into the back window like a sardine can lid.

    The Grand Marquis, which had Ontario plates, suffered the most serious damage. Firefighters had to cut off the driver's side door to get the driver out.

    Six of the injured were taken by ambulance to Morton Plant Hospital, while two went to Mease-Dunedin Hospital. The names of the injured were not available late Friday, Shelor said.

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