The 29-year-old woman who died early Friday morning in a wrong-way crash on the Sunshine Skyway Bridge that left another driver hospitalized could have been driving in the wrong direction for two to six miles before the collision, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.
FHP Sgt. Steve Gaskins said video showed the wrong-way driver, Shontel Nicole Chase, heading north in the southbound lanes of Interstate 275 and going through the toll plaza on the Manatee County side of the bridge on her way to St. Petersburg.
Chase's 2005 Ford Focus then hit a 2000 GMC pick-up truck nearly head-on around 3:40 a.m., the FHP said. The other driver, Jon Allen Mitchell, 55, tried to swerve right to avoid the oncoming vehicle, troopers said. Chase tried to steer left.
Though both drivers tried to avoid hitting each other, their vehicles ended up colliding near the south fishing pier. Chase was pronounced dead at the scene. Mitchell, of Palmetto, was reported to be in critical condition at the Blake Medical Center in Bradenton.
The driver's mother, Debra Chase, was inconsolable after she learned of her daughter's death.
"Shonney is gone, Shonney is gone, Shonney is gone," the mother's fiance, Clay Lavoie, recalled her yelling when she shared the news with him on the phone.
From outside their home on Friday, Lavoie described an upbeat future step-daughter who had found stability after financial troubles.
"She had finally gotten on her own two feet," he said. "She had gone through some hard times in the past. She just got her car paid off."
Chase worked as a hairstylist at Tim's Barber Shop in St. Petersburg. She went out with a co-worker Thursday night, Lavoie said, but her family didn't know why she was in Manatee County.
As the sun rose on the crash scene Friday morning, Chase's white Ford was crumpled up against the bridge's wall. The collision sent both vehicles spinning.
Lavoie thought she may have gotten mixed up when pulling out of a nearby rest stop and getting on the interstate.
"It's confusing down there even during the day," he said.
Chase had six driving infractions dating back to 2009, according to state records, including a DUI charge from January 2010. She completed DUI school and substance abuse program.
Gaskins said investigators were still investigating the crash, piecing together how Chase spent her last hours. But it was too early to say whether alcohol was a factor in the crash.
"Right now the corporals are going back to create a trip plan and recreate the 24 hour period leading up to the crash," he said. "Were you at work, sick, healthy, tired?"
Chase grew up in New Port Richey and graduated from Gulf High School. She went on to study hair at the Paul Mitchell School in Tampa. She was close to her mother and doted on her Yorkshire Terrier, Wally.
After just four months working there, Chase had already grown close with her coworkers.
"We're a family here, we're not associates," said Melinda Schneider, the manager at Tim's Barber Shop. "We lost a family member today."
Chase had planned to attend a birthday party Friday night, Lavoie said. Now, he and her mother were dreading having to clean out her apartment.
Mitchell's family could not be reached for comment.
Chase's family planned to take it day-by-day.
"That's all we can do," Lavoie said.
Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird and staff writer Lavendrick Smith contributed to this report. Contact Sara DiNatale at firstname.lastname@example.org and Josh Solomon at email@example.com