NEW PORT RICHEY
The girls cruised the winding road with the whole summer ahead of them.
They would have begun applying for colleges soon. They would have returned to high school in the fall as seniors.
On Tuesday afternoon, in a rural neighborhood in northwest Pasco County, Courtney Lynn Little's car veered out of control, off the pavement and into a spin. In a blink, the 17-year-old, along with her friend and passenger Kimberlee Kathy Markou, 16, were gone.
Their car came to rest not far from where two white crosses are staked in the ground, a memorial to victims of another crash on a road that has seen so many accidents the county is conducting a safety audit.
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The girls were excellent students who joined honors societies and were on track for college, said Maria Swanson, River Ridge High School principal.
Tim Little knows his daughter would have gone big places. Now he doesn't know what he'll do without her.
When he walked to the microphone in a Wednesday afternoon news conference, he hugged Courtney's portrait to his chest, the picture facing him. After a pause, he turned it around to show his daughter's smile.
"To say that she was beautiful and intelligent is an understatement," Little said.
She also pushed herself, said Courtney's mother, Christine Gilmore. Courtney took the SATs several times because she always wanted to score higher. She stacked her senior schedule with Advanced Placement and dual enrollment classes.
"She was the child that every parent wished they had," Gilmore said between tears. "And now she's gone."
Kimberlee's family did not respond to messages from the Times. Gilmore and Little expressed their sadness for the Markou family and said Kimberlee's family should decide what to say about their daughter. They didn't want to talk much about Tuesday, either.
The news conference lasted five minutes. That was all Courtney's family could take.
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The Florida Highway Patrol said Little was driving a 2008 Chevrolet sedan south on Moon Lake Road near Bethwood Avenue about 4:45 p.m. Tuesday. The FHP said she lost control for unknown reasons and spun into the northbound lane. A Dodge SUV driven by James William Butz, 53, of New Port Richey struck the passenger side of the Chevrolet, the FHP said.
Little and Markou died at the scene.
Butz and his passenger were taken to a hospital for treatment, officials said. A third driver saw the initial accident and crashed into the shoulder on the side of the road.
No charges have been filed, the FHP said.
"That is a very dangerous stretch of road," said Greg Johnson, 52, who lives about a quarter of a mile from the crash site. "There is an accident out there almost every week."
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Johnson's not entirely far off.
From January 2010 to December 2012, there were 155 crashes on Moon Lake Road, where the speed limit ranges from 35 to 55 mph, according to Pasco County statistics. Four of those were near the bend at the Bethwood intersection.
According to the FHP, there have been five fatal accidents in the past five years on Moon Lake Road. The most recent was March 20, with circumstances strikingly similar to the girls'.
It was a rainy night and Marzena Misztal, 45, was driving south on the same curve near Bethwood Avenue shortly after 9 p.m. Her vehicle rotated and a car in the northbound lane slammed into her. She was pronounced dead on the scene.
Sharon Hurlburt, 56, manages a convenience store off Volunteer Way. She said there's a dip in the road on that particular bend, and your car can lift off the ground when it's rainy.
"I heard the boom and ran outside because it sounded like it was a bomb going off," Hurlburt said. "A bomb and then a tin can was being crushed."
Johnson described the dip as a 4- to 5-inch drop off the edge of the asphalt. If a tire slips off, he said, drivers who jerk the steering wheel to return to the roadway end up in the opposite lane.
Pasco County is conducting a road safety audit on Moon Lake Road and has collected crash statistics at various intersections along the corridor. County engineer James Widman said the number of incidents on the road prompted the audit.
"We periodically look at the worst locations, worst road segments in the county," he said.
The county contracted a consultant to do the study. They expect it to be finished by the end of the month.
Consultants will study crash reports and observe conditions, he said, and identify long- and short-term problems. If necessary, improvements will be made.