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    Crash victim worried about eyes

    Her sister says the woman, who died in a car accident Wednesday, feared her driving had deteriorated.


    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 22, 2000

    SEMINOLE -- Eileen Paonessa prayed at every intersection as she drove her white Honda Accord to the Largo mall a few days ago.

    Her eyes having grown weak, the 80-year-old asked God to watch over her as she steered through busy crossroads, she told her sister, Berniece Gerber.

    "I really don't think I should be driving," her sister recalled Paonessa telling her. "My eyes are really getting bad. I just don't see that well anymore."

    On Wednesday afternoon, Paonessa drove herself to an eye doctor. Afterward, she drove home. Driving south on 143rd Street N, she pulled out from the stop sign at Walsingham Road.

    She apparently did not see a small pickup traveling west on Walsingham. The truck smashed into the side of her car. Rescuers tried pulling Paonessa from the wreckage, but she died before they could get her out.

    A preliminary investigation has found Paonessa was at fault in the crash, as she violated the right of way of the pickup. However, the investigation was not complete Thursday, said Largo police Officer George Edmiston, a traffic fatality investigator.

    The driver of the pickup, 21-year-old Seminole resident David Henry Crum, was transported to Bayfront Medical Center with injuries that were not life-threatening, police said.

    Gerber said she thinks her sister simply did not see the truck. She said her sister shouldn't have been on the road; she regrets not doing more to keep her from driving.

    "She shouldn't have been out on the streets anymore," Gerber said. "There's too many on the street like that."

    Drivers who get their licenses renewed, no matter what their age, must pass a vision test. Drivers with no violations must have their licenses renewed every six years, while others must renew every four years, said Pilar Delp, public information specialist with the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

    It was unclear Thursday when Paonessa last had her license renewed.

    Gerber said she thinks people should have to pass a vision test every year.

    But Paonessa was an independent spirit. She would have bucked at being forced to rely on others to cart her around town.

    "She was pretty spunky," her sister said.

    In fact, she often drove 92-year-old Gladys Gehring, a fellow member of Christ the King Lutheran Church in Largo, to the doctor's office. She had planned to take Gehring to the doctor today.

    "She was so good-hearted," Gerber said. "She just couldn't say no."

    Gehring agreed.

    "She was a lovely person," Gehring said Thursday, recalling that the two chatted about church and their health during their trips to the doctor.

    "We just couldn't believe it," Gehring said. "A lot of us will miss her."

    Paonessa also counted the collection money at church every Monday. But her inability to see the money in front of her was frustrating, her sister said, and she planned to quit after Christmas.

    "I'm afraid I would make a mistake," her sister recalled her saying.

    Paonessa was born in Indiana and spent most of her life in Fort Wayne, Ind. She was married to her husband, Joseph, for 43 years before he died in 1984. They had one son, who died at age 46 of heart complications.

    Paonessa retired from her job at Magnavox and moved to Florida 20 years ago. She had four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, but most of her family contacts were with Gerber and her daughter, both of whom live in Florida.

    She spent a lot of time volunteering at the church, where she stuffed bulletins with inserts on Fridays and helped with the church's monthly newsletter.

    Gerber said her sister was at peace knowing her time to die may have been near. She anticipated being reunited with her husband and son after death.

    "She is happy where she is now. She was ready to go," Gerber said.

    Gerber's husband was killed in an auto accident in South Carolina in 1965, while her daughter was seriously hurt in a 1986 crash on Ulmerton Road.

    "Now the policeman comes to the door to tell me about my sister," said Gerber, 78. "It's just been one tragedy after another."

    "She was a good person, and it's a big loss," Gerber said. "And I'm going to miss her. Everybody thought the world of her."

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