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A Tampa mom wonders if her young son would still be alive if he'd worn his seat belt

TAMPA — Andrew Schnitker, 22, was about to start a new phase of life.

An honors graduate at Gaither High School, where he ran track and made it to the state finals, he studied architecture at the University of South Florida.

Polite and friendly, he was taking his final classes and preparing for postgraduate work in architecture.

"Andrew was a great kid. He had a lot going for him. He had a bright future," said his mother, Melinda Schnitker.

If only, she said repeatedly between sobs, her son had worn his seat belt.

It was about 4 a.m. Thursday as Schnitker sped west from Northdale Boulevard onto Mapledale Drive, said Hillsborough sheriff's officials.

His Nissan sport utility vehicle veered out of control on a curve, rolled over and slid into a wall at Northdale and Braesgate Lane.

Schnitker was ejected from the car. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

''There's a good possibility that he may have survived or only received some survivable injuries had he been wearing his seat belt," said Hillsborough sheriff's spokesman Larry McKinnon.

Passenger Stephen Cole Berndt, 25, was uninjured. He was wearing a seat belt.

A crash investigation is under way, and authorities said they suspect alcohol was a factor but would not elaborate.

The accident occurred in the middle of national seat belt safety campaign, Click It or Ticket.

"It's the law to wear a seat belt and a $100 fine if you don't," McKinnon said. "But that is the least of the consequences."

Less than a half-mile from the early-morning crash, neighbors hugged Schnitker's heartbroken mother outside her home.

Several neighbors cried with her.

Many families on or near Briarberry Lane have friends close to Schnitker's age. Many of them spent years playing basketball and video games together.

Schnitker's mother cried out: "I want his friends to come over. I need to see them."

Next-door neighbor Lucille LaBrusciano said Schnitker was a wonderful boy who always stopped to say hello. He helped his dad mow the lawn and wash the cars.

She said her own son did better in school because he saw Schnitker get good grades.

Bardia Demneh, 19, showed up and hugged the mother of his childhood friend.

The mother asked about the passenger in her son's car. Demneh told her that Berndt was wearing a seat belt and wasn't hurt.

Schnitker sobbed.

"Oh my God! I lost my son because he wouldn't wear his seat belt," Schnitker said.

Demneh said Schnitker was one of his best childhood friends.

They first met when Demneh was walking down the street and Schnitker invited him to throw a football around.

That led to sleepovers and long hours of basketball in the driveway.

Demneh became one of the group.

He still remembers the names and phone numbers of numerous neighborhood boys who would crowd into a living room for a robust game of Xbox.

Reached at her home, Berndt's mother cried at the thought of losing a son.

She said her own son was devastated at the loss of a friend.

"It's so tragic. Every spring break, someone dies," she said. "It's so sad when it's someone so young."

A Tampa mom wonders if her young son would still be alive if he'd worn his seat belt 03/24/11 [Last modified: Thursday, March 24, 2011 11:01pm]
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