Monday, December 11, 2017
Public safety

Tampa Bay area roads turn deadly with pair of triple-fatality crashes

Roads in the Tampa Bay area turned especially deadly Sunday morning when three were killed as a sport utility vehicle rolled over and three more died after a driver failed to stop and ran into their car, authorities said.

None of the six people who died in the two crashes was wearing a seat belt, the Florida Highway Patrol said.

The crashes, which happened eight hours apart in Hillsborough and Pasco counties, remained under investigation.

Both directions of busy State Road 54 were closed for more than three hours after a three-vehicle collision occurred between Wesley Chapel and Zephyrhills in Pasco.

Around 11 a.m., the Highway Patrol said, a 2000 two-door Toyota driven by Dustin Andrew Diaz, 22, heading west on SR 54 near Ernest Drive failed to stop for traffic and collided with the rear of a 2008 four-door Volkswagen, sending that car onto the shoulder.

But the Toyota driven by Diaz, of Wesley Chapel, continued traveling, veering into oncoming, eastbound traffic — where it smashed into another Toyota, a 2002 four-door, the patrol said.

Three people in the eastbound Toyota died at the scene.

The patrol identified them as Lavon Lakin Hartman, 90, of Zephyrhills and Charles W. Anken, 78, and Georgianna L. Anken, 77, of Holland Patent, N.Y.

Others involved in the three-car collision were injured and taken to hospitals.

Jonathan Hartman, 54, is Lavon Hartman's youngest of four children. He said his mother had been in an accident within the past few years, so he asked her to stop driving.

The fatal crash occurred as she was being driven home from church by her friends, the Ankens.

"She would find significant things in the small things in life like birds singing," Jonathan Hartman said. "She was so connected to life."

Lavon Hartman had been married since 1943 to a husband who just died in September, he said.

In addition to their four children, the couple had several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

"She truly was always smiling," Hartman said. "She was just a great mother and a beautiful person."

Less than eight hours earlier, in southern Hillsborough, three fathers of young children died after the SUV they were in overturned and ejected them.

The crash happened about 3:10 a.m. as the 2001 Ford Expedition headed north on U.S. 41 south of Ruskin.

For some reason, the SUV went off into the grassy median and overturned.

All three men were thrown from the Ford onto the southbound lanes and shoulder of the highway, the patrol said. They died at the scene.

Troopers and family members identified the victims as Jesus Jaime, 29, Abdiel Cruz, 27, and Erick Venegas-Zuñiga, 29.

All three lived in a mobile home park in Gibsonton, family members said, and none had a driver's license or U.S. citizenship. All three had been in the processes of applying through relatives who are citizens, family members said.

Manuel Jaime, Jesus Jaime's brother, said Jesus had come to his house Saturday night and asked Manuel's wife if he could borrow her car, but she said no because Jesus had no insurance.

Manuel Jaime, 34, said he thinks the three victims attended a party then went dancing, but doesn't suspect alcohol was to blame. He believes they were tired and the driver fell asleep.

"I still can't believe it," he said, speaking in Spanish. "Three people dead from one accident."

Jaime described his brother as a hard worker and dedicated father to his 4-year-old son, Eduardo.

Jesus Jaime worked in construction, traveling often to anywhere work was available, even out of state, his brother said.

He most recently was commuting from Orlando to spend time with his son on the weekends. He most enjoyed taking Eduardo to the park during his free time.

"He would give him everything if he could," Manuel Jaime said.

Carlos Zuñiga said his brother, Erick Venegas-Zuñiga, leaves an infant daughter, Marlen Ariana, and a wife behind.

Carlos Zuñiga, 32, also said his brother worked in construction, traveling to and from out-of-town sites to spend time with his family on the weekends.

Those two victims, Jamie and Venegas-Zuñiga, grew up in Guanajuato, Mexico, and enjoyed fishing together.

Rusvel Cruz, a brother of victim Abdiel Cruz, said Abdiel lived with Venegas-Zuñiga as roommates in the mobile home park.

Rusvel Cruz, 34, said his brother worked as a carpenter in Gibsonton and that, like the others, leaves behind a child — a 2-year-old son, Abdiel Cruz Jr.

It was unclear which man was driving, the Highway Patrol said.

Family members believe it was Venegas-Zuñiga because he was the only one with a vehicle.

Times researcher Caryn Baird and staff writer Will Hobson contributed to this report.

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