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Breast cancer survivors from Pink Dragon Ladies mourn friend killed in crash

TAMPA

Twice before, the Pink Dragon Ladies had waded hip-deep into Hillsborough Bay, paintbrushes in hand.

The Pinks are a dragon boat team made up of breast cancer survivors. When they lose a teammate to the disease, they paint her name and a short tribute on the sea wall near the Platt Street bridge.

For Carol Lee Banks, it was "Pinkies Up," for the way she held her paddle.

For Mary Ann Musial, it was "Our Angel."

On Wednesday, the Pinks went back to the sea wall.

But this time was different.

Linda Fessell, 64, of Plant City had survived breast cancer, but died Sunday in a hit-and-run crash. Even for a group accustomed to facing death, it was a cruel twist.

"With the others, we expect to lose members to breast cancer," said Jonny Wright, 54, of Lutz. "It's the nature of the beast. But you never, never, ever expect something like this."

The Pinks come from all around Tampa Bay. They practice twice a week and have paddled their boat, the Dragon Lady, in competitions as far away as Canada. Their 20 paddlers hold their own against noncancer survivor teams, and they all share the same experience.

Other people often don't know what to say to someone who has lost her hair or eyelashes, but the Pinks do, said Eden McCann, 43, of New Tampa, who had her last round of chemotherapy last week.

"It's nice to come down and hang out with a bunch of women who know what I'm going through," she said.

A founding member of the Pinks, Fessell was quiet, though she lit up when she talked about her grown son and daughter. She retired two years ago after 34 years in human resources at Tampa City Hall. There, she was known for helping job applicants and employees alike.

It was the same in the Dragon Lady. When Tessie Young became team president, Fessell simply told her, "I'll do whatever you need."

Mostly, though, she let her paddle do the talking. She sat in the middle of the boat, in the fifth seat on the left side. It's a spot for the strongest paddler on the team. It's known as "the engine room."

That strength is what the Pinks remembered about her Wednesday. For an hour, sometimes pausing to cry, often to laugh, they painted "Linda Our Engine" in pink and purple.

Saturday morning, they plan to paddle to the sea wall with some other dragon boats. They'll say a few words, spread dozens of carnations on the water, then head to Rick's on the River for a drink.

But in the Dragon Lady, Seat 5-Left will be empty.

Breast cancer survivors from Pink Dragon Ladies mourn friend killed in crash 12/14/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 14, 2011 11:45pm]
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