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Wreck shuts down southbound U.S. 19

Sheriff's deputy Matthew Christie was driving south on U.S. 19 Friday morning when he saw a gray Dodge Dynasty driving north in the median near Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard.

Fearing the driver might swing into the southbound lanes, Christie flipped on his lights and sirens, hoping to stop traffic. But before he could pull to a stop, the driver of the Dodge pulled into the southbound lanes and slammed into the patrol car, Pinellas sheriff's officials said.

The 10:30 a.m. crash triggered a five-car accident that left three people injured and forced the closing of U.S. 19 for more than six hours. The southbound lanes were opened about 5 p.m. None of the injuries was considered life-threatening.

The driver of the Dodge, Matthew Lee Webb, 58, of Palm Harbor was taken by helicopter to Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg. He was released Friday night.

Webb has been charged with three drunken driving charges, including one causing serious injury, records show.

Christie suffered cuts to his face, along with injuries to his ankle, neck and back. He was taken to Morton Plant Hospital, treated and released, said sheriff's office spokesman Cal Dennie.

Three other cars were hit after the initial impact. The driver of one of those cars was taken to Suncoast Hospital as a precaution.

The sheriff's major accident investigators had to close the southbound lanes for so long because of the complexity of the investigation, Dennie said. The impact also severed the patrol car's fuel line, creating a safety hazard, he said.

"It took that long because you had five cars," Dennie said.

A backup that at one point stretched nearly a mile to Coachman Road had drivers' patience running thin.

Sheriff's deputies diverted south-bound traffic at Drew Street, then allowed motorists to figure out the best way to get around the closed stretch.

Some cars, pickup trucks and even semitrailer trucks were darting recklessly into the Target parking lot trying to cut the corner and head west on Drew Street.

That wasn't a reliable remedy, however, as drivers weaved between parked vehicles and landscaping islands in what seemed to be a scene from Demolition Derby.

Tires screeched, engines revved, horns blared. For Target customers, the walk from the store to their cars turned into a dangerous game of dodging irate drivers.

Perhaps those most frustrated were people who had "Delivery" or "Emergency Plumbing" written on the side of their vans. For them, taking U.S. 19 turned into a costly mistake.

"Yesterday there was one in Palm Harbor, today there's one here," said Jason Jimmerson of Gulfport as he sat idle in the parking lot waiting to break free. "It's nothing new here. It's 19. This right here is probably as crazy as I've seen it. This is bad."

Nicole Gibbs agreed. She's a human resources intern at Time Warner Communications and was so tired of the traffic snarl, she parked at Target and walked next door to her office.

The situation on the southwest corner of Drew and U.S. 19 was different, but just as frustrating. Business owners and managers at the Campus Walk Plaza say accidents around the intersection are all too familiar, and they hurt business every time.

Richard Leone, owner of the Italian Eatery, said he doesn't get as many customers when there's a wreck that stalls traffic near the intersection. But he said he's more frustrated that people get hurt on U.S. 19 than he is about the business.

In front of the plaza, Durango Steak House's parking lot was nearly deserted Friday afternoon. Manager Paul Blake said the restaurant's business was cut by more than half while U.S. 19 was closed. It took him about an hour to get to work from Oldsmar, usually a 20-minute drive.

"Obviously, when they shut down 19, that's going to impact everybody," Blake said. "It's frustrating. Anything that slows business is frustrating."

Raymond Beasley, a maintenance worker at the Hampton Inn on U.S. 19, said his manager radioed him and co-worker Alfred Villado to grab fire extinguishers and head out to the road. The pair put out small fires that had started under the hood of the patrol car and one other car. They also put sand on fuel leaking from the patrol car.

"I wasn't really paying attention to (passing) cars. I just didn't want anything to explode," he said.

Beasley said the deputy was out of the car and standing on the side of the road by the time he arrived with a fire extinguisher.

After Webb hit the deputy, the cruiser spun. The car behind the cruiser, a beige Olds Cutlass driven by Tuan Nguyen, 20, of 2534 Northfield Lane, was struck by Webb's car. Nguyen's vehicle was redirected into a guardrail, while Webb's car came to rest in the far left lane.

A fourth car, driven southbound by Adriana Pelham, 42, of 1406 Cromwell Drive, Tarpon Springs, then was hit by debris and possibly one of the other cars.

Neither she nor Nguyen was injured.

But a fifth car, a 2000 Saturn driven by Robert Tessier, 73, struck the side of the cruiser. Tessier suffered broken bones and was taken to Mease Countryside Hospital. His injuries were not life-threatening, Dennie said.