LAND O’ LAKES — As a driver sped around barricades toward the runners during the Skyway 10K on Sunday, it dawned on Trooper Toni Schuck that she was the last line of defense.
Schuck thought the driver would get a look at her eight-passenger Chevrolet Tahoe with the Florida Highway Patrol markings parked squarely in the road before her and stop. But the 2011 BMW 335i kept coming, at 70 mph and more.
Acting on instinct, Schuck veered slowly into the path of the car. The vehicles collided, totaling them both and sending the drivers to Bayfront Hospital St. Petersburg with minor injuries.
Schuck said at a news conference Thursday that she’ll be OK, but she was driven to tears recounting the “what if” scenarios that continue to haunt her.
“I was the last officer, I knew it was me,” Schuck said. “If it wasn’t me to get her to stop, then who?”
The Highway Patrol and race organizers credit Schuck with saving dozens — if not more — of the 8,000 runners who were gathering just up the road for the annual 10-kilometer race over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.
Watts recorded a blood-alcohol level more than three times the legal limit for drivers, the Highway Patrol said in court filings. Six hours later, while consenting to a breathalyzer test from the Manatee County Jail, she had a blood-alcohol level of .09, still above the legal limit of .08.
Troopers say Watts drove past a number of road closure signs around 9 a.m. Sunday while speeding north in Manatee County. The northbound span of the bridge was closed to traffic to accommodate the race.
The Highway Patrol released a dramatic dashcam video from the Tahoe showing the collision. Schuck said she didn’t even have time to think about her family or head-on crashes that have killed law enforcement officers in Tampa Bay during similar situations.
Schuck, a 26-year veteran of the Highway Patrol, was assigned to work the race and had been on duty through the night as the starting time approached.
When she first heard that a vehicle had driven around the barricades, she was parked half a mile from the starting line. She saw runners getting off buses near the starting line and stretching. She turned the Tahoe to face the approaching car and saw another trooper driving toward it, she said.
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“I decided to follow and stay back,” she said. “I knew no one was behind me.”
“In my mind, I think she’s going to stop. We have another checkpoint where she’s going to stop.”
Then came a radio transmission that the driver wasn’t stopping.
“I had myself positioned in the middle of the road,” Schuck said. “I’m not trained to do that ... it was just an instinct.”
“I thought if she got past, she would see that truck and she would stop. If she saw me veer to the left, I thought she would stop.
“In my mind, she’s gonna stop. The next thing was the crash.”
Schuck, standing before reporters Wednesday in civilian clothes, was treated for injuries that included a concussion and cuts to the head, court filings said. The Highway Patrol did not release the full extent of Schuck’s injuries, citing privacy laws. Watts was treated for minor injuries and arrested on charges including DUI involving serious injury, according to court filings.
The BMW was driving faster than expected considering a drunken driver was behind the wheel, said Schuck, who, as a Highway Patrol officer, has has specialized in dealing with drunken drivers and now is assigned to commercial vehicle enforcement. Schuck was driving slowly when the crash occurred, she said.
“She could have stopped, but she chose to do what she did,” the trooper said.
As Schuck was taken to an ambulance, she saw the runners again, “and it really overwhelmed me. I’m thankful it was me. I’m thankful she didn’t get past me.”
Schuck credited her sturdy sport-utility vehicle with helping cushion the blow from the head-on impact. She said things might have turned out differently had she been driving one of the Dodge Charger sedans that troopers also use.
Schuck is a mother of two and the wife of a sergeant with the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office. One son, 24, is serving in the Air Force, and the other, 20, is attending the police academy.
Flowers and messages of gratitude have poured into Schuck’s home and phone this week, she said. She apologized that she likely won’t be able to answer each one.
“My dining room table looks like the inside of a florist shop,” Schuck quipped.
Schuck is taking time off from work and plans to keep working as a Highway Patrol trooper. She’s not sure she could have stayed with the job if Watts made it by her, she said.
Among those grateful to Schuck is Pasco County Schools Superintendent Kurt Browning, who ran with members of his family in the Skyway 10K.
“She put duty before herself,” Browning said in an interview Thursday. “Talk to any of those runners on that bridge and they would say thank you. She was the hero of the day. Even losing one life would have been tragic and she prevented that.”
Sherry Clark was another among the hundreds of runners who reached out to Schuck after learning what had happened. The 58-year-old Bradenton woman ran with her niece and sister and sent Schuck a letter of thanks.
“I’m so emotional to think that one of our state troopers would sacrifice their life for all of us,” Clark said in an interview. “There were thousands of us on that bridge — runners, medical personnel, families. I’m still so emotional over it and we are all incredibly grateful for her.”
Staff writer Dennis Joyce contributed to this report.