VALRICO — Nicole Petracci's friends knew her as a "wild child" and "party girl."
She got into a car crash once and wrote on a MySpace page that a seat belt saved her life.
She became engaged to a man from North Carolina and had begun to settle down, wanting to start a new life up North.
"I feel like I'm in a dream and I haven't woken up," one friend remembers her saying.
Petracci, 19, was a passenger Wednesday night in a 2007 Chevrolet HD 3500 pickup truck that left the road and slammed into a tree on Nature's Way Boulevard, north of Havenstone Way, in Valrico.
She was not wearing a seat belt. She died at the scene after being thrown from the vehicle.
A preliminary investigation found that the driver, Addison Strzalka, 20, was speeding when he lost control of the truck while negotiating a curve northbound on Nature's Way Boulevard, according to sheriff's officials.
Authorities declined to say exactly how fast Strzalka was driving. Investigators determined the truck was going significantly more than the speed limit, Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office Deputy Larry McKinnon said.
Strzalka was taken to Tampa General Hospital with injuries that weren't life-threatening, authorities said.
"We don't know if alcohol was involved or any type of illegal substance," McKinnon said. "We just know that speed was a factor."
Speeding alone could be enough to net criminal charges, McKinnon said. But authorities will not issue any charges until the investigation is complete.
A group of Petracci's friends gathered at the crash scene Thursday afternoon to pay respects to the young woman they said had a big heart and loved to sing.
"We had so many plans on growing old together," said Rebecca Larwa, 19, who described Petracci as her best friend. "I want to believe she is watching over me and she will be there when I fulfill the plans we made."
Some of those who gathered had graduated with Petracci in 2009 from Bloomingdale High School. She attended Hillsborough Community College, where she first studied business, but later switched to a major in nursing, they said.
She was a member of her high school chorus. Her friends said she wanted to be a rock star.
"She was getting in trouble with her parents for a while," Larwa said. "There was a lot of butting heads, but they loved her and she loved them."
Tire marks were visible in the road leading to the crash site. Streaks of black dirt marked where the truck cut through the grass on the side of the road. Bits of plastic and metal had been swept into a pile at the base of the tree, among the flowers and items mourners placed there.
Some friends penned notes on the tree trunk, where the force of the crash ripped away the bark.
"I last saw her Tuesday night and she was really happy" about her engagement, Larwa said. "I felt like she was saying goodbye and I didn't know."
Petracci's family declined through a friend to comment.
A man who stood with a group of people outside Strzalka's residence in Brandon said the driver's family also did not want to comment.
Strzalka received a traffic citation in December 2008 for driving across private property, according to court records. Other details about his driving history were not immediately available.
None of Petracci's friends at the crash scene knew much about Strzalka.
"I feel bad for him," Larwa said. "I heard that he was in shock."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Dan Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3321.