The Florida Highway Patrol classifies the crash on U.S. 19 as alcohol-related, but does not say who is suspected.
A 45-year-old Palm Harbor woman died on her birthday Friday when an oncoming Ford Explorer crossed the median of U.S. 19 and hit the car she was driving head-on.
The impact threw two of the Explorer's passengers onto the highway, where one of them, a 20-year-old Palm Harbor man, was struck by a Toyota Camry and killed. The other, 19-year-old Kelly Clark of Clearwater, was taken to Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg, where she was treated and released.
All three southbound lanes of U.S. 19 between Tampa and Curlew roads were closed for more than four hours after the 7:05 a.m. crash while troopers investigated and workers cleaned up the wreckage strewn across the road.
The woman killed, Deborah D. Hanges, was driving to her job as an accounting coordinator for the Checkers restaurant chain in Clearwater, her husband, Paul Hanges, said.
She was driving a red Pontiac Grand Am, a car on loan from the auto dealership where she was to pick up her brand new Volkswagen Jetta as a birthday present Friday night, Paul Hanges said.
Rescuers had to cut the roof off the Grand Am with hydraulic tools to remove her from the crumpled car.
The couple had celebrated their fourth wedding anniversary last week.
"We were friends before I fell in love and she fell in love," Paul Hanges said. "I just want to express to you that through the thick and thin that we went through in our lives, we remained friends. I lost my best friend today. Someone took away my best friend."
Joseph Battagliola, 20, of the Twin Lakes apartment complex in Palm Harbor, was the other person killed. A woman who answered the door at his apartment declined to be interviewed.
The Florida Highway Patrol classified the crash as alcohol related but did not specify which driver might have been drinking. No charges were filed Friday.
The Explorer driver, 22-year-old Nicholas John Howard of the same address as Battagliola, has a history of traffic violations.
Records from the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles show he had 1998 convictions for careless or improper driving, failing to obey a traffic instructional sign or device and failure to wear a seat belt.
In 1995, he was convicted of operating a motor vehicle with improper or no tags or registration and driving while his license was suspended.
The Explorer was headed toward Howard and Battagliola's apartment and was less than a quarter-mile from the complex's entrance on U.S. 19 at the time of the crash.
An investigator from the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office was on the scene Friday morning, collecting information.
The crash happened just before the morning rush hour, when traffic was still light, said Patrick T. Carmichael of Tarpon Springs, who was driving south behind Deborah Hanges' car when the crash happened.
He saw the oncoming northbound Explorer swerve suddenly, as if the driver had realized he was about to miss a left turn. Then the vehicle went out of control, crossed the median and hit Deborah Hanges' car.
Vehicles began to spin ahead of Carmichael, and one struck the front of his car, but he was still able to steer across the median into the vacant northbound turn lane, he said.
When he came to a stop, he realized that he was unhurt except that his air bag had deployed, spilling a fresh cup of hot coffee on him.
"I sat there for a few seconds and made sure all my pieces were together," he said. "I feel very, very fortunate."
_ Staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.