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Poised to pass on the tiara

MIAMI, Nov. 7

Miss Florida Shauna Pender was on her way to a charity event when an semitrailer truck carrying avocadoes overturned on top of the Lincoln Town Car she was riding in.

Metal impaled her chest. The truck crushed her right arm and shoulder. She woke up in critical condition, asking: "Am I going to die?" She had six surgeries in the next six weeks.

Pender, 24, Miss St. Petersburg 2003, had been first runner-up for Miss Florida three years in a row. Then Miss Florida _ Ericka Dunlap _ won Miss America. So Pender was crowned Miss Florida.

Three weeks after the accident, Pender, an aspiring singer and actor, still depended on a feeding tube. At Christmas, her mom pushed her through the mall in a wheelchair.

"She still has a lot of healing to do," Carole Holsonback, director of the Miss St. Petersburg Pageant, said in early January. "She can't talk. She can barely whisper."

Pender sued companies responsible for the semi, saying the driver wasn't properly trained and the avocadoes weren't properly loaded. She is seeking $10-million.

"We don't know when Shauna will be able to resume her duties as Miss Florida," said state pageant director Mary Sullivan, whose husband is the lawyer representing Pender. "Right now, we're just taking things one day at a time."

ST. PETERSBURG, Jan. 25 _ The lights were dim. The cream curtains were closed. A golden spotlight was dancing across the stage.

"You've all been so wonderful," said a man in a black suit. He was Allan Brown, co-director of the Miss St. Petersburg pageant and Pender's close friend. "Shauna really appreciates all your cards, all the e-mails, everything."

He spoke to a packed house at the Sunset Ballroom at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort Golf Club on Snell Isle. More than 100 people had come to watch nine women compete for the city title.

Shauna Pender had come to hand over her crown.

"And now," Brown said, turning toward the stage. "I give you your Miss Florida 2003 _ Miss Shauna Pender!"

The curtains parted. The spotlight poured across center stage.

This was Pender's first public appearance since the accident. As late as the week before, pageant officials weren't sure she would be able to make it to St. Petersburg.

But there she was, her long chestnut hair framing her unscarred face, her rhinestone tiara sparkling in the spotlight.

Brown helped guide Pender to the dance floor. She glided slowly and gracefully, her black bell bottoms swishing around spike-heeled shoes. A studded belt circled her slim hips. Her black turtleneck opened in ovals along her long arms. Through the tiny openings, you could see she still wore a shoulder brace. Her right wrist was bandaged almost to the elbow. And she cradled her right hand in her left.

As she beamed across the ballroom, the audience rose. The standing ovation lasted almost two minutes.

Then Brown gave his friend a gift. "The week before we left for the state pageant, we really wanted to see this movie. But we never got the chance," he said. He handed her an unwrapped DVD.

Pender hadn't spoken all evening. She wouldn't address the audience again. But with a beautiful smile, in a hoarse whisper, she said, "It's From Justin to Kelly." The American Idol icons had realized a dream like hers. "That's why."

The pageant people gave her flowers. She sat through the show in the front row, while the contestants whirled around her in swimsuits and beaded evening gowns, singing songs she could no longer sing.

When Kristen O'Rear was crowned the new Miss St. Petersburg, Pender had to let someone else pin on the glittering tiara. But she stood up, smiled and congratulated her successor.

And she hugged her hard _ with her left arm.

Donations to help with Shauna Pender's medical expenses may be sent to: Pender Family Fund, CB&T Bank, P.O. Box 2107, Warner Robbins, GA 31099. E-mail her at

Lane DeGregory can be reached at (727) 893-8825 or

Shauna Pender, Miss St. Petersburg 2003 and Miss Florida 2003, still wears a shoulder brace and bandages on one arm after a crushing auto accident in Miami in November. Here she makes her first public appearance since that day, coming to the Sunset Ballroom last Sunday at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort Golf Club to see the city crown Miss St. Petersburg 2004.