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Another person dies on the Lake Panasoffkee Bridge on I-75 before work to widen and improve the span can get under way.
By JAMIE MALERNEE
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 31, 2000
After four people died in crashes on the Lake Panasoffkee Bridge last year, state officials put a rush on plans to widen it. Just last week, a firm was awarded more than $19-million to design and enlarge the Interstate 75 bridge that runs through Sumter County.
But that change came too late for Joyce F. Russell, a Spring Hill school bus aide who was killed in a five-car crash Sunday.
A state Department of Transportation official said Monday the pileup could have been avoided if the widening, at least a year or two away from completion, had been finished.
"It's a long bridge, and there are no shoulders," said DOT safety engineer Tony Nosse. "(They) could have used them for avoidance."
Mrs. Russell, 58, died shortly after 1 p.m. after a vehicle several cars ahead suddenly switched lanes. That caused a chain reaction involving five cars, including the vehicle in which Mrs. Russell was a passenger, the Florida Highway Patrol said.
Three others in Russell's car -- including Russell's husband, Robert Russell, a Hernando school bus driver -- were critically injured and flown to Orlando Regional Medical Center. Also in the car was driver Howard Bristol, 65, of Spring Hill and his wife, Norma. All three remained in the hospital Monday evening.
Mrs. Russell and the three injured passengers all were wearing seat belts.
The driver of the car that first collided with Russell's, striking it from the rear, was identified as Joshua Lynch, 23, of Trenton, west of Gainesville. Lynch escaped the wreck with minor injuries.
FHP officials did not release any information about the other cars and people involved in the wreck, including the southbound car that originally changed lanes.
State Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite, who has advocated widening the bridge, said she had heard that authorities did not know who was driving the vehicle that changed lanes.
She said she was saddened by Mrs. Russell's death and wished the bridge renovation, which will begin in the spring, had been completed. Plans call for the bridge to be widened from four to six lanes and for the 2-foot-wide shoulders to be extended considerably. The additional lanes will not be opened, however, until Interstate 75 is widened north and south of the bridge.
"In a perfect world, we would have had it done. We wouldn't have to go through the engineering stage," Brown-Waite said. "But we have pushed it. It was in the 5-year plan and would have taken close to five years. But (after last year's accidents) we got on DOT's case right away and got them to expedite it."
Four people died in three accidents on the bridge in May and June 1999. Nearly a mile long, the bridge has been the site of about 50 accidents between 1993 and 1998, according to DOT statistics. But between 1994 and 1997, none of those accidents was fatal.
In a reaction to the 1999 fatal accidents, DOT also put up larger warning signs and replaced the dotted lines between lanes with a solid one.
But those measures brought little comfort Monday to those who knew Joyce Russell.
Mark Tallent, transportation director for the Hernando County School District, remembered the bus aide as a friendly, bright woman who was "excellent with children" and had an unusually close relationship with her husband.
"They are both very friendly, very happy people," he said. "A few years ago she was diagnosed with cancer and it was very hard on him. She recovered. ... So I can't imagine what he's going through now."