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Two die as car speeds off ramp

A third man is in critical condition after their car crashes through a guardrail and flips down a slope in Tampa.

Thinking it would be safer to travel the roads on Friday night instead of New Year's Eve, three friends from Bradenton headed to Tampa for a night on the town.

Seven hours later, their car crashed through a guardrail on a Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway ramp and flipped down an embankment into a stand of trees.

No one was wearing a seat belt, and all three were thrown from the car.

Eduardo Charles, 21, who had recently bought the car as an early Christmas present to himself, and Wilfrido Campos-Salvador, 22, died at the scene. Juan Humberto Pecina, 18, was taken to Tampa General Hospital, where he remained in critical condition Saturday night.

Tampa police spokesman Joe Durkin said a nearly empty bottle of Captain Morgan rum and a bottle of Coca-Cola were found in the car.

Although tests have not been completed to determine the blood-alcohol levels of the driver and the occupants, Durkin pointed to the accident as a warning this New Year's holiday.

"Clearly, this is a horrible reminder not to drink and drive," Durkin said. "If you drink, get a designated driver."

Elizabeth Huerta, the girlfriend of Campos-Salvador, said the three friends had left Bradenton about 9 p.m. Friday. They didn't want to be in Tampa on New Year's Eve, she said.

"We kissed each other and said, "I love you,' " Huerta said Saturday afternoon through tears. "He usually comes home late, but last night he didn't come home at all."

Durkin said the 1999 Mercury was southbound about 4:30 a.m. and traveling 75 mph when it slammed into a metal guardrail on the Dale Mabry Highway exit ramp, flew into the air and sliced a palm tree in half.

The speed limit on the ramp is 25 mph.

Relatives said Charles was proud of his new car.

"He just got a new job and bought himself the car," said his sister-in-law, Christi Charles. "He had a good future ahead of him and it was cut short."

Durkin said it was unclear who was driving. Police said they hope to interview Pecina in the hospital.

Several residents of the Lighthouse Bay Apartments, just feet from the exit ramp and separated from the embankment by a wooden fence, were awakened by the crash.

"I heard several large noises, thunk, thunk, thunk, bam," said Jenda Miller, who lives on the top floor of the three-story apartments. "I sat up in bed and told my boyfriend, "Somebody drove off that ramp.' Ever since I moved here I've thought somebody is going to drive off that ramp someday."

Lynn Kimbrel, whose second-floor balcony faces the exit ramp, said the sounds of the crash pierced the night. She ran to her glass door and saw smoke rising from the embankment. She dialed 911.

"Police were here within five minutes," she said.

Miller said she stood outside watching rescue workers for about an hour. She saw one body on the exit ramp and another a few feet from the car.

Tampa Fire Rescue workers found the third victim, Pecina, partly trapped under the car.

Miller was still shaken by the crash Saturday.

"It's so sad," she said. "Here it is right after Christmas and right before New Year's."

_ Sarasota Herald-Tribune reporter Timothy O'Hara contributed to this report.