It was about 2 a.m. Friday when a car pulled in front of 18-year-old Stephanie Hyatt's brand new black Honda Civic as she and her friend Karolina Milewska were heading west on Ridge Road to Steak n Shake for a snack.
Hyatt swerved to avoid it and headed toward the median. As she tried to get back on the road, her car flipped three or four times. Hyatt was flung from the car and died at the scene, near Lemon Road.
According to the Florida Highway Patrol, she was not wearing her seat belt. Milewska was, and on Friday she was grateful.
"My seat belt saved me," she said.
Milewska, 18, remembers screaming, then holding her breath as the car tumbled. When it stopped, she scrambled out the window because she feared the car might explode from the impact.
She thought Hyatt was doing the same thing.
But the 18-year-old driver, a recent honor graduate from River Ridge High School, had been ejected from the car through the driver's side window. Minutes later, someone told Milewska that her friend hadn't made it.
"I just didn't know what to think," said Milewska Friday morning while still in shock. "Every time I close my eyes I see the accident happening."
Six of Hyatt's friends were gathered poolside Friday morning at Milewska's New Port Richey home. Some cried, but most said the tragedy just hadn't sunk in yet.
They were eager to share memories of the girl some had known since elementary school. Hyatt had been the life of the party, they said, the hyper one who always had a smile on her face. Though she was on the varsity swim team at River Ridge for three years, they joked that she should have been a cheerleader.
"I seriously don't think I've ever seen her upset," said Jill Kiegel, 19.
"She always had a smile," said 17-year-old Diane Biamonte.
On Thursday night, Stephanie was all smiles when she left home to hang out with friends, remembered her stepfather, Steve Hyatt. She had just returned from Tallahassee with her mom, Theresa, where they'd spent two days registering Stephanie for freshman classes at Florida State University.
The math whiz had graduated from River Ridge with a 3.988 grade point average, Hyatt said, but she wasn't sure what to major in.
"She was an outstanding student," he said. "She was actually upset because she thought she was going to graduate with a 4.0. I told her I wanted to download her brain, her smarts."
No official word was available Friday on whether a seat belt would have prevented Stephanie Hyatt's death. Last year, out of the 248,114 Florida crashes in which the driver wore a seat belt, only 0.12 percent died. In the 2,192 crashes in which an air bag was the only safety equipment, 3.92 percent of the drivers died.
The highway patrol report stated that alcohol was involved in the accident. Hyatt's friends said they all had been drinking earlier Thursday night, but Milewska said she made sure her friend was okay to drive before they got in the car.
Milewska's legs and arms were scraped up from the accident. The cut on her right arm required stitches, and doctors had to dig glass out of her right foot.
She was quiet Friday morning, letting her friends do most of the talking.
"This is a reality check," Biamonte said. "I think my seat belt is going to be glued on me any time I get in a car."
When another girl got up to leave, she received a stern warning.
"Buckle up," said 18-year-old Gabby Flexer. "No joke."
_ Colleen Jenkins can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6232 or (800)333-7505, ext.6232.