The driver sat outside his overturned pickup truck, back against a concrete traffic barrier and eyes closed in what appeared to be sleep. He later was charged with DUI manslaughter.
The woman riding with him had been thrown through the open passenger window when the pickup slammed into the rear of a stopped semitrailer truck June 18 along Interstate 75 near State Road 60 in Brandon.
Gravely injured, the woman was seven months pregnant. An ambulance took her to Tampa General Hospital. Within 45 minutes of the crash, she had undergone an emergency cesarean section and died. But doctors saved her baby, Van Brian Smith. He is spending the first weeks of his life, maybe more, in intensive care.
“He’s gonna be a rock star,” said Tom Smith, 69, of Wesley Chapel, the boy’s grandfather.
Smith’s daughter hadn’t picked out a name for the baby, so the task fell to Smith. His inspiration: “Van” Morrison, Eddie “Van” Halen, Ronnie “Van” Zant, as well as the boy’s late uncle Brian Mealer, a local musician. And baby Van’s mother — 27-year-old Vanessa Marie Schmurr-Smith.
Smith and his daughter shared a passion for music and karaoke that kept them close. He can never replace their relationship.
But he hopes he gets the chance to raise Van, at least during the boy’s first 5 or 6 years. After that, he’d love to see Van grow up on the 40-acre horse ranch where Smith’s brother and his wife live in Nevada.
First, though, Smith awaits the results of a paternity test that will prove whether Van is the son of his daughter’s boyfriend, Mario Charles Gonzalez, 41, of Zephyrhills — the man who was at the wheel during the crash.
Vanessa was always antsy growing up in Wesley Chapel, where she attended Wiregrass Ranch High School but never received her diploma, Smith said.
“She had itchy feet. She couldn’t sit in one place long enough to finish it.”
Still, she was smart, he said.
For the past five years, Vanessa worked as an office manager at an air conditioning company, a job she landed easily even without a high school diploma.
Vanessa was living with her father in Wesley Chapel in a double-wide mobile home. Her grandfather lived in a second double-wide on the same property.
The family had already experienced tragedy. Vanessa’s mother died in 2010 of breast cancer and her brother, Brian, died around eight years ago. But Vanessa and Tom had each other.
“She was more than my daughter. She was my best friend.”
Smith had started a karaoke business back in the early 1990s. Then he bought a bar in the late 1990s but sold it around 2000, when Vanessa was 6. Vanessa later developed a love for karaoke.
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“She knew I was into it,” Smith said, “but she did that on her own and surprised me and brought me to one of them. And then she just started bringing me to a bunch of them.”
Vanessa’s song of choice was The Devil Went Down to Georgia, by The Charlie Daniels Band. She first heard the twangy, fast-paced, boot-kicking tune live at the annual St. Petersburg Ribfest — a fan favorite for nearly 30 years before the organizers shut it down in 2019.
Since Vanessa was 14, she and her father had a deal. She would go to Ribfest with him if he would attend the Vans Warped Tour with her. Their back and forth grew into a tradition, despite their differing musical tastes.
Lynyrd Skynyrd and Three Dog Night were her father’s jam.
“She was more of headbanger,” Smith said with a chuckle.
On June 18, a Friday, Vanessa was on leave from work for her pregnancy. She and Gonzalez were excited about the baby, though Gonzalez was still in the middle of a separation, Smith said.
The collision happened just before 3 p.m. as Gonzalez was driving north on the I-75 frontage road toward the S.R. 60 ramp in a silver GMC Sierra pickup. For reasons not explained in his arrest report, Gonzalez left the roadway, swerved back, and struck a rear tire on a Publix semi that was stopped in traffic on the S.R. 60 ramp.
The collision caused the pickup to flip end over end. Vanessa was thrown through the open passenger window as the roof came to rest on the highway median. She was not wearing a seatbelt.
Witnesses saw Gonzalez crawl out the same window, the arrest report said.
“My brakes went out,” he said, according to a witness.
Florida Highway Patrol troopers arrived at the scene to find Gonzalez sitting against the concrete barrier. He woke with a start and the troopers noticed he had slurred speech, glassy eyes and rocked back and forth, the report said. He gave a trooper a changing story, saying at first that he was in the passenger seat at the time of the crash and later that he was in the middle seat, the report said.
Asked to perform a series of sobriety tests, Gonzalez faltered repeatedly, the report said. Later, after testing Gonzalez’s blood, troopers arrested him on a charge of second-degree DUI Manslaughter. He was released June 24 after posting $25,000 bail.
Gonzalez is represented by the Public Defender’s Office, which says it does not comment on pending cases. Possible phone numbers and emails listed for Gonzalez either were no longer in use or produced no response.
In addition to his grandfather, baby Van has had visits at Tampa General from two of his mother’s childhood friends.
Savannah Pelkey lives outside Gainesville and gave Van his first stuffed animal, a green dinosaur that stands above his hospital crib. Samantha Hammond created a GoFundMe page bearing Vanessa’s photo but calling her only “Nessa” and titled, “Medical, Funeral and Baby Expenses.” The page notes Vanessa’s love of music and NASCAR and had raised $350 of a $20,000 goal as of Thursday morning.
“Vanessa loved hard,” Pelkey told the Tampa Bay Times. “We always called each other sisters. We loved each other to the core.”
Hammond, who lives in Tarpon Springs, continues visiting Van at the hospital. She said she has seen his toes and fingers curl. She clings to the hope that he’ll make it out.