Report says driver in fatal crash also lost consciousness in a 2007 accident

Plant High guidance counselor Terry Hoke organizes cards for Nancy Farnsworth’s family. “She was truly loved,” Hoke says.

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

Plant High guidance counselor Terry Hoke organizes cards for Nancy Farnsworth’s family. “She was truly loved,” Hoke says.

TAMPA — Driver Eric Dewayne McNeil lost consciousness behind the wheel.

That's what police said happened Friday just before his pickup crashed into a minivan on Hillsborough Avenue, killing Plant High teacher Nancy Farnsworth and her husband, Webster, and injuring their 3-year-old granddaughter.

But it's also what happened four years ago and three blocks away, when McNeil rear-ended a stopped car on Armenia Avenue before plowing into two other vehicles in a parking lot, according to a report obtained Monday by the St. Petersburg Times.

McNeil suffers from seizures in times of stress and fatigue, his sister Evette McNeil said, noting that it happens about once every few months.

He drove anyway, using his truck to get to and from his job as a cook at St. Joseph's Hospital, she said. That's where he was coming from at 3 p.m. Friday when the crash occurred.

"He didn't know that was going to happen," his sister said. "It's hurting him dearly."

After the Sept. 25, 2007, crash, a Tampa police officer recommended McNeil be re-examined by the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, according to the report. Like all crash reports, it would have gone to the state agency, Tampa police said.

It's unclear what happened from there. State officials won't comment on McNeil's situation, citing privacy issues.

Police didn't file charges in that crash, and their report doesn't list a reason for the blackout.

And McNeil maintained his license. It's good through July 2017, state records show.

McNeil, 42, suffered minor injuries in Friday's crash and returned to work Saturday, said his sister. He took the bus.

Meanwhile, the Farnsworth's 3-year-old granddaughter, Kaylee, remains hospitalized. Her father, Adam Farnsworth, says doctors are still trying to determine whether her brain was injured.

McNeil has not been charged. Police say they're still investigating the cause of the crash and waiting on forensic test results, which could take several weeks.

McNeil's wife, Anissa, answered the phone at the couple's house Monday and said she had no comment.

Evette McNeil said, in retrospect, someone should have stopped her brother from driving.

"His doctor knew. His job knew," she said.

So did his family members, but she says they didn't stop him because the seizures happened "only once in a blue moon."

"I'm sorry for the family that this tragedy happened this way," Evette McNeil said. "We all have sympathy."

Adam Farnsworth didn't want to talk about the police investigation Monday. Instead, he spoke about his parents and his appreciation for the community's support, especially in regard to his mother, a beloved math teacher at Plant High in South Tampa.

Nancy Farnsworth had taught math in Hillsborough County since 1986. She transferred to Plant in 2000, when Adam was a sophomore there, and quickly became known as a teacher who truly cared.

"She would always miss lunch because she would be tutoring her kids," said Plant math teacher Teresa Cozzi. "After school, her door was always open. I'd leave some days at 5 o'clock in the afternoon and she'd still be there."

Adam Farnsworth loved popping into his mother's classroom. He said she was adored not because she was lenient but because she'd do anything to help a student succeed.

"Some nights she'd stay up an extra four hours just to make a make-up test for one student," he said.

Each summer she'd sit down with her family and explain her plan for making the upcoming school year her best yet.

At the school Monday, most of Nancy Farnsworth's students knew they'd be returning to a classroom without their teacher. They had the weekend to write on her memorial Facebook page and buy roses for her desk.

Other teachers substituted and no one tried to teach. Her students spent Monday remembering their teacher and making sympathy cards for her sons. Some of the students cried, Cozzi said.

And they were adamant about one thing: do not erase any of Mrs. Farnsworth's writing on the whiteboard. Friday's quote-of-the day remains in black script.

It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.

— William Shakespeare

Principal Rob Nelson arranged to have grief counselors available. He had known Farnsworth for about a decade and said she was possibly one of the nicest people he'd ever met.

"I think she was put on this Earth to teach," he said.

Times news researcher John Martin and staff writer Marlene Sokol contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3433.

Report says driver in fatal crash also lost consciousness in a 2007 accident 10/24/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 25, 2011 12:52am]

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