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Family, friends remember victim in St. Petersburg scooter-wheelchair crash

ST. PETERSBURG — Police and prosecutors are still unraveling last week's crash involving a scooter and a motorized wheelchair, focusing mainly on the wheelchair operator who survived.

At a St. Petersburg funeral home Monday, family and friends gathered to remember the other man: the 59-year-old scooter driver who was killed.

Tom Wiemken, friends said, was a father who sat on the bleachers cheering on his daughter's every softball game from little league to college. He was the proud dad of a son who rose to the top of the Boy Scouts ranks. He was a husband of 24 years. An Air Force veteran. A lover of the sea. And a man who touched the lives of many veterans as a clinical pharmacist at the VA Medical Center at Bay Pines, according to an obituary on Anderson-McQueen Funeral Home's website.

"He was just an incredibly good father," said John Dickinson, a longtime friend who lives in Seattle. "He was an exceptionally fine gentleman, an extremely well-loved family man, a consummate volunteer in his community."

"I loved him dearly," he said.

Dickinson first met Wiemken in 1978 in Singapore. Wiemken had served as ship's doctor on a oceanographic research vessel chartered to Jacque Cousteau's son. His work aboard the vessel is where he developed his love of the ocean.

After working with Cousteau, he and a small group of crew members drew an international spotlight when the Alysse Maru was allegedly raided by Maldivian islanders while sailing in the Indian Ocean, according to a 1979 Associated Press article. Accusations of kidnapping and piracy flew, but the two countries eventually agreed it was a misunderstanding and no legal action was taken.

On Tuesday night, Wiemken's scooter collided with a motorized wheelchair on Fourth Street N at 14th Avenue. He was taken to Bayfront Medical Center, where he died early Wednesday.

No one has been blamed in the crash and many of the details are still under investigation.

That includes one of the biggest questions: Was Robert W. Kurczaba, 56, the man in the motorized wheelchair, a motorist or a pedestrian?

People operating wheelchairs typically are considered pedestrians. But because Kurczaba's wheelchair is motorized, police said they will examine the accident in greater detail to determine whether charges should be filed.

The decision could boil down to the size of the wheelchair motor.

Investigators are still speaking to witnesses and also are waiting for blood test results to determine if drugs or alcohol were involved. Then, prosecutors will need to determine what statutes apply to the case, said Bruce Bartlett, chief assistant state attorney for Pinellas and Pasco counties.

"Some statutes talk about motor vehicles and some just vehicle. In the DUI statute, it talks about vehicles, but in DUI homicide, it's motor vehicles," Bartlett said. "If a bicycle falls into the DUI statute, could the same be applied to a wheelchair or mobility scooter?"

"So basically ... there's still a lot of questions to be answered," he said.

Times staff writer Emily Nipps and Times researcher Natalie A. Watson contributed to this report. Reach Danny Valentine at dvalentine@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8804.

Family, friends remember victim in St. Petersburg scooter-wheelchair crash 12/06/10 [Last modified: Monday, December 6, 2010 11:37pm]
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