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Rescuer recalls Seminole crash; dead teens' family, classmates mourn

Corey Lepore, who survived the Seminole crash, is embraced by Tamisha Jackson at a memorial for her son LeShawn Smith.

CHRIS ZUPPA | Times

Corey Lepore, who survived the Seminole crash, is embraced by Tamisha Jackson at a memorial for her son LeShawn Smith.

SEMINOLE — Paramedics knew the wreck would be bad.

"I had a gut feeling when I heard that call dispatched," said Rick Koda, a district chief for Seminole Fire. "You could hear it in the dispatcher's voice."

In the four minutes and 20 seconds it took to reach the scene, firefighters could hear calls coming in reporting that a car was on fire, that it had exploded, that bodies were in the road.

The reality was worse. The road was dark and paramedics went from body to body using the fire's light to find survivors.

"It was grisly," Koda recalled Monday, his first day back on the job since the 11:18 p.m. crash Friday that killed four high school students. "In my 22 years as a paramedic, it was the worst scene I've ever been on."

The car, a black Lexus driven by Joseph Ruzecki, 16, was heading west on 86th Avenue N when it came up behind a Chevrolet Lumina.

Richard Allen Goltl, 42, had slowed and started to make a left turn onto 141st Street about the same time Ruzecki tried to pass on the left. Ruzecki hit Goltl's car and sent both vehicles spinning. Goltl, who works in plant operations for the St. Petersburg Times, could not be reached for comment Monday.

The Lexus continued for half a block before hitting a pine tree and bursting into flames. As it hit the tree, Koda said, the engine flew out, knocking a hole in a thick concrete fence post.

All but Ruzecki, who was the only one wearing a seat belt, were ejected. Corey Lepore, 17, the survivor, was thrown the farthest, landing in a nearby yard. He left the hospital Monday.

"The energy of that crash, I can't imagine it," Koda said. "That car was going fast."

Killed were three Seminole High students: Ruzecki; Nathan Richardson, 15; and Keith MacCollom, 17. The fourth, LeShawn Smith, 16, was a student at Largo High School.

• • •

The hallways at Seminole High are usually filled with chattering teens. On Monday, the only noise came from echoing footsteps.

Several teenagers went to the library to talk with grief counselors. Others left school to visit the scarred pine tree.

There, mourners have left notes and tributes.

A football helmet bears the message: Joey, we love you so much!!! Love, Mom and Dad.

Students Bruce Tantish and Robert Smaridge were among Monday's visitors.

Tantish left a T-shirt. Smaridge signed the football helmet.

Smaridge described a friend's reaction: "He's the one who sat here for two days. ... He (came into class and) put his head down. Didn't say anything to anybody, punched the white board on the way out, then hit a locker."

On Monday night, about 250 teens and teachers met at the Greater Ridgecrest YMCA in Largo to remember Smith.

More than a dozen spoke as Smith's mother, grandfather and great-aunt listened. Lepore and his father were in the audience.

"He turned out to be everything I wanted him to be," Smith's mother, Tamisha Jackson, said.

"Please buckle up," she said. "Don't let your parents come up here. No parent should bury their child."

• • •

The speed limit on that stretch of 86th Avenue is 25 mph. Authorities have not said how fast the teen's car was going, only that speed was a factor.

Residents said they had long complained of speeders and asked for speed bumps.

Pinellas County records show that a request was made in 2003. A study determined the best solution would be multiple stop signs at the intersections of 86th and 140th and 86th and 143rd.

A petition to install them failed to get the required 60 percent support. A neighbor asked again in 2006. The county responded that it was willing. But officials say they heard nothing more.

Times staff writer Luis Perez and researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.

Vigils continue

Seminole High School plans a candlelight vigil at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday on the school football field.

At Largo High, a memorial is planned after school Wednesday at the school stadium.

Visitation for Keith V. MacCollom, 17, of Seminole will be 5 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at Mohn Funeral Home, 9700 Seminole Blvd. A memorial will be at 6 p.m. Thursday at Indian Rocks Baptist Church, 12685 Ulmerton Road.

A viewing for Nathan "Nate" Scott Richardson, 15, of Seminole will be from 2 to 4 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. Friday at Moss Feaster Funeral Home Chapel, 13401 Indian Rocks Road. A funeral will be at
1 p.m. Saturday at Seminole First Baptist Church, 11045 Park Blvd.

Rescuer recalls Seminole crash; dead teens' family, classmates mourn 04/13/09 [Last modified: Friday, April 17, 2009 1:58pm]
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