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Driver follows hunch to save a life

She saw an elderly driver swerve and wildly accelerate. She knew something was terribly wrong. She was right.

By JAMIE MALERNEE

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 12, 2000


The car nearly plowed over Cynthia Sarnecki as it swerved across Commercial Way, accelerating to breakneck speed.

Sarnecki's first thought was that it was drunken driver or a teenage showoff, but then she saw the elderly woman in the driver's seat.

"Something inside me said she needed help," the Brooksville resident said Thursday. "So I followed her."

What happened next has Hernando County sheriff's officials calling Sarnecki and three other motorists heroes. They pulled 80-year-old Loretta Harper from her car after it crashed into some woods and burst into flames. Authorities say Harper of Spring Hill was in stable condition at St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa after suffering a diabetic seizure at the wheel.

Antimo Schiano, one of the rescuers, called 911 at 11 a.m., when he first saw Harper driving erratically on Commercial Way. He followed her as she turned east onto Centralia Road, going 100 mph, Deputy Mike Glatfelter said. Once on the smaller road, Harper's car traveled to the right of the road and into a ditch, where it hit a culvert that sent her car flying 145 feet. When the car landed, in continued across the road and hit the left shoulder, which sent it plowing 400 feet into the woods, Glatfelter said.

The vehicle immediately began smoking.

"I've never been so afraid because we knew that car was going to explode," Sarnecki said. "We just didn't know when."

The rescuers risked it anyway. After seeing Harper's car hit the trees, the four motorists who saw the accident -- Antimo, Sarnecki, Georgia resident Edward Peppin and an unidentified woman -- jumped out of their vehicles and pulled Harper from the wreckage. Soon after, flames engulfed the car.

"If we had waited five minutes, she would have been dead," said Schiano, who owns a pizza parlor in Homosassa and suffered minor burns to his eye.

Sarnecki said she held Harper's hand until help arrived and Harper was flown to St. Joseph's. Sarnecki said she later spoke on the phone to Harper, who was having difficulty with her memory but otherwise was all right.

"She didn't remember anything about the accident. She said, "Oh my goodness, I can't believe it!' " Sarnecki said. "All I could think about was, what if we hadn't followed her?"

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