Fatal crash shocks Seminole

SEMINOLE — Their friends arrived in droves, some of them beating even the paramedics to the gruesome scene.

A black Lexus carrying five teenagers from Seminole and Largo high schools had smashed into a tree. Four were strewn around the street. Another was trapped in the burning car. Only one survived.

Distraught mourners came to the sleepy neighborhood on 86th Avenue N on Friday first in dozens and then hundreds, alerted to the tragedy by a lightning-fast network of text messages, phone calls and Web sites. An overwhelming outpouring brought together by familiar circumstances — teens in a car, late at night, driving too fast, most not wearing seat belts.

They inched as close as officers would let them. Girls huddled in groups. Young men, on their hands and knees, wept. Sobs cut through the warm midnight air.

"It was a bad feeling," said Scott Robinson, a Seminole High senior who made it to the scene 10 minutes after the accident. "My heart just sank."

The five teens were cruising in a Lexus sedan about 11:15 p.m. Friday on a familiar stretch of 86th Avenue North, a well-traveled road that dead-ends into a quiet residential neighborhood.

The teens, authorities say, were going much faster than the 25 mph speed limit. As they approached 141st Street N, they came up behind a 1993 Chevrolet Lumina Z34. Richard Allen Goltl, 42, was at the wheel, about to turn left onto 141st.

The Lexus, driven by 16-year-old Joey Ruzecki of Seminole, tried to pass on the left but struck the front of the Lumina, according to the Florida Highway Patrol. The Lumina rotated clockwise and ended up facing east on 86th Avenue. The Lexus hit a tree, ejecting four of the teens, and then burst into flames. Only Ruzecki was wearing a seat belt.

Ruzecki, 17-year-old Keith MacCollom of Seminole; and 15-year-old Nathan S. Richardson of Pinellas Park died at the scene. LeShawn Allan Smith, 16, of Largo, died en route to Sun Coast Hospital. Corey Kenneth Lepore, 17, of Seminole, survived. He was listed in fair condition at Bayfront Medical Center on Saturday.

Ruzecki, Richardson, MacCollom and Lepore attended Seminole High School. Smith attended Largo High School.

Goltl, the driver of the Lumina, was treated and released. Goltl works in plant operations at the St. Petersburg Times.

The sound of the collision reverberated throughout the neighborhood.

"There wasn't any screeches," said Lorene Rockwood, who lives a couple of blocks from the scene. "It was just a big bam."

It is unclear exactly where the teens were going or coming from. They were just blocks from Ruzecki's house.

In Florida after 11 p.m, a 16-year-old must be accompanied by a licensed driver at least 21 years old unless he or she is going to or from work.

Officials have not said how fast the Lexus was going.

"I can say that speed definitely played a part in the causation of the crash," FHP spokesman Sgt. Steve Gaskins said.

• • •

News of the crash spread quickly.

Many of the teens lived in the neighborhood. And those who didn't found out through a call or text message.

"They were sitting around a table painting Easter eggs … and then life just changed," said Mary Miscuk, whose daughter is a junior at Seminole High. "All of a sudden, cell phones started going off."

The hundreds of grieving students and parents stayed in the neighborhood for hours. Some scratched messages in the tree, its bark torn away by the impact of the Lexus. As they watched, family members of the students arrived and were led to the scene, where car parts lay sprawled across the road.

"We're placing a lot of resources on this incident," said Assistant Fire Chief George Bessler. "It's not a good scene."

When the crowd got too large, authorities opened up the auditorium at Seminole High. Grief counselors and several chaplains were called in.

"These weren't bad kids," said Seminole High School Principal Walter Weller. "I call them bread and butter kids. These were the kids you need to have a school. That's what's going to be so hard about this."

MacCollom, a junior, was a varsity player on Seminole's basketball team. Richardson, a freshman, had made the school's baseball team. Ruzecki was known around school as a good kid who valued family, the principal said. Smith, who loved basketball, was extremely close to his grandfather.

Lepore used to play basketball and is always around to cheer on his schoolmates.

Weller said the teens often would hang out with him after school, dishing about sports and guy stuff.

"I call them my parking lot pals," Weller said. "It hurts. It hurts me in my heart."

• • •

The community is trying to cope with the tragedy.

Students, teachers and parents returned on Saturday, gathering in the student parking lot at Seminole High until about 2:30 p.m. in a kind of impromptu wake. Kids hugged each other and cried as they remembered their friends and tried to make some sense of the accident.

"Crazy, you never saw this coming," said Shannon Brown, a Largo High School graduate who said he was one of LeShawn's best friends. "Not LeShawn."

Over at the baseball field, team members gathered to weep and remember their "brother," Nate.

"We're going to bounce back. We're never going to lose again," said Scott Robinson, a senior on the team. "He would want us to win and stay together as a team."

Even after mourners left the high school, kids clustered at the scene late into Saturday.

Officials made plans for a candlelight memorial at 7:45 p.m. Tuesday at Seminole High. Counselors will be on hand all week at the school.

"We're going to grow from this," Weller said. "We're going to do the best we can."

Around the neighborhood, many residents shook their heads. They said they've long lobbied for speed bumps to be installed along that stretch of 86th Avenue. Seeing kids speed down the street is nothing new, they said.

"This is going to have a huge impact on Seminole," said Miscuk, the Seminole High parent. "Seminole is a very close community. I think this is going to be a huge wakeup call for a lot of kids."

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Kameel Stanley can be reached at kstanley@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8643.

Fatal crash shocks Seminole 04/11/09 [Last modified: Monday, April 13, 2009 9:59am]

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