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WITNESS RECALLS FIERY CRASH

A woman and her father pull three teens from a burning car, but can't save the driver.

Jennifer Paige heard the squeal of tires first. Then, a loud boom.

By the time she got to the end of her driveway, flames were visible. A van had hit a tree dead on, branches sprouting out where the windshield should have been.

Inside, four teenagers screamed for help.

Paige's father, Jim Dowd, grabbed a crowbar and called 911. Paige began smashing windows. One by one, she pulled the three passengers out, dragging them away from the flames.

"The car was so hot, I was burned just touching it," said Paige, 39. "I have never seen a fire spread so quick. There was no time to wait."

Dowd, 70, tried to pry the driver's door open. When that failed, he reached in and tried to drag 16-year-old Kevin Monaco out through the window.

"He was awake, he was lucid and just talking, asking us to get him out," Paige said through tears Saturday as she recounted the events Friday afternoon.

Something was pinning him inside, she said. They were unable to save him.

"I just wish we could have done more," Paige said.

The accident occurred Friday about 3 p.m., when Monaco, of Port Richey, lost control of his van on a curve of Lake Forest Circle, near Lake Forest Drive, the Florida Highway Patrol said. The Dodge Caravan flew to the shoulder of the road, hit a tree and caught fire, troopers said.

Back seat passengers Michael Morgan, 17, and Megan Kahn, 16, were taken to Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point. Kahn was released Friday night, and Morgan was in stable condition Saturday afternoon. Front seat passenger Jamie Florio, 16, was transported to Tampa General Hospital where she was in serious condition Saturday night.

The crash is still under investigation, troopers said. Alcohol does not appear to be a factor.

All three passengers attend Ridgewood High School in New Port Richey, troopers said. Monaco was home-schooled, they said.

A man who identified himself as Monaco's father said the family was dealing with the tragedy and wished to be left alone.

Monaco's passengers suffered burns and possibly broken bones, Dowd said.

Dowd and Paige said the van's engine appeared to be shoved against Monaco's legs.

"From the waist down, he couldn't move at all," Paige said. "There was no way to get him out."

Even though she was able to help save three lives, Paige said Monaco's last moments will haunt her forever.

"I just keep thinking about his mom," said Paige, who has children about the same age. "I'm going to see his face the rest of my life."

Times news researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Shelley Rossetter can be reached at srossetter@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3401.

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