1 killed when car, tanker collide

Published March 23, 2000|Updated Sept. 27, 2005

Police say a 16-year-old went through a stop sign at the same intersection where three teens died in 1996 because of a missing stop sign.

Two Lakeland teenagers in a black Honda CRX hatchback zipped along rural Keysville Road and approached the stop sign at Lithia-Pinecrest Road about 3:20 p.m. Wednesday. There was a school bus and another car ahead of them.

"He decided to pass them," said Joe Robinson, the sheriff's traffic homicide investigator. "As he entered the intersection, he realized he made a mistake and hit the brakes."

The Honda could not stop and screeched into the intersection in front of an 80,000-pound tanker truck headed east on Lithia-Pinecrest Road carrying a load of molten sulfur.

"The truck crushed the right side, and then the whole front end of that car got hooked by that tanker," Robinson said.

Charles Kent Wingate, 16, of 1500 W Highland St., lot No. 36 in Lakeland, died in the wreck. His passenger, Benjamin Harris, 15, 1408 W Patterson St. in Lakeland was critically injured.

The stop sign that officials say Wingate ignored on Keysville Road at Lithia-Pinecrest Road was the cause of an accident in 1996 that left three teenagers dead after vandals pulled out the sign there.

Both Keysville Road stop signs were intact Wednesday afternoon. The problem, investigators said, was that Wingate either ignored them or just didn't see them.

The Honda, a mass of twisted metal, came to rest in the parking lot of Tim's Cafe.

The tanker truck veered off the road and flipped into a ditch next to a citrus grove. The truck's driver, Ronald Lehlbach, 50, of 2506 W Hamilton Ave. in Tampa was taken to Tampa General Hospital and is expected to survive.

Paramedics loaded the two people from the car into a helicopter that took them to Tampa General. Wingate was pronounced dead at the hospital. Harris had surgery but suffered massive internal bleeding and was not expected to survive.

Though the intersection was the site of a previous fatal crash, Robinson said it's not necessarily unsafe.

"It's not bad as long as people are doing what they are supposed to do and driving the speed limit," Robinson said.

The speed limit on Lithia-Pinecrest Road is 45 mph, which many people exceed.

"There probably should be a stop light here to slow traffic," he said. "People speed through here, and the problem is, when you do have a wreck, it's always a really serious accident the devastation is always there."

But Lehlbach wasn't speeding in his tanker truck, Robinson said.

"He weighs almost 80,000 pounds and the car weighs about 3,000," he said. "With that kind of force and momentum, they didn't have a chance."