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Wrong-way crash in Seminole kills two, devastates family

This story has been corrected to say this was the 14th and 15th wrong-way fatality this year in the Tampa Bay area.

SEMINOLE — Joao "John" Martins and his wife, Arminda, were inseparable, retirees who left New Jersey's icy winters to bask in sunny Florida.

They especially loved family get-togethers. Christmas Eve sat atop their list, with sons, daughters and grandchildren — a dozen in all — telling stories and enjoying Portuguese classics.

This past Christmas Eve looked to be like the rest, a warm memory in the making. But it ended tragically when Joao and his daughter-in-law, Isabel Martins, were killed minutes after leaving the party, and his wife was critically injured.

Authorities said they were victims of yet another wrong-way driver in the Tampa Bay area — the 14th and 15th fatalities this year.

This time, the crash happened about 12:30 a.m. on Park Boulevard at 131st Street N in Seminole.

A Ford Explorer heading west on Park's eastbound lanes crashed head-on with the Martins' Hyundai Sonata, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.

Isabel Martins, 58, at the wheel of the Sonata, died at the scene, the FHP said. Joao, 84, known as "John" to family members, died an hour later at Bayfront Health in St. Petersburg.

Arminda Martins, 82, who was also transported to Bayfront, was admitted in critical condition, the FHP said.

John Anthony Martins, at home in Redington Beach, got word of the crash minutes after his parents left to head for their home in Largo.

Matthew J. Martins, his 23-year-old nephew, was at the crash scene. He was in another car, tailing the Sonata, when his car also collided with the Explorer. He was shaken up, but unhurt.

"Stunned. Just stunned," John Martins said, trying to make sense of the loss. "I can't get my arms around this. They had just left. I've lost my father. I've lost my sister-in-law. My mother is in the hospital."

Authorities said Paul E. Pulkownik, 51, of Largo was driving the Explorer.

Investigators are still trying to determine where he was heading and when he started driving the wrong way on Park Boulevard, a wide, four-lane stretch with raised medians.

"The evidence points to" alcohol use, FHP spokesman Sgt. Steve Gaskins said. Investigators are awaiting toxicology tests and the results of their investigation before deciding on charges.

Efforts to reach Pulkownik were unsuccessful Thursday. He was transported to Bayfront with minor injuries, the FHP said.

According to records, Pulkownik has no prior arrests in Florida. He moved to the state two years ago from Bolingbrook, Ill.

Joao Martins, a Portuguese immigrant, came to the United States in 1949 and retired with his wife from northern New Jersey 20 years ago, his son, John, said. He said his father was a machinist on an electric turbine.

"They just loved Florida, spending time on the beach, fishing," he said. "They had lots of friends. They were very active. They were amazing people."

The couple joined St. Justin Martyr Catholic Church in Seminole, and attended dances and dinners at the Portuguese American Suncoast Association at 7808 46th Ave. N in St. Petersburg. Both were fluent in Portuguese.

Joao contributed to the construction of a chapel at the club dedicated to Our Lady of Fatima. His wife helped cook Portuguese favorites, said Rosalina Rebelo, the club's vice president.

"That was about five years ago. Mostly in their later years, they came to socialize with friends," she said.

"It's just awful, just awful," she said. "Any time you have a fatality, but happening on Christmas Eve, that poor family. It's just awful."

Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Rich Shopes at rshopes@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3368. Follow @richshopes.

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