TAMPA — Don Rogers was driving through South Tampa on his way home to a lasagna dinner Thursday when he noticed a pillar of smoke rising about a half-mile ahead of him on the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway.
As he crested a hump near the Euclid Avenue entrance ramp he saw an inferno of wrecked vehicles scattered across both lanes.
Rogers, 48, instinctively pulled his pickup truck off to the side of the expressway and ran toward a white Hyundai, its trunk in flames. He and another man cut the seat belt from the unconscious driver and carried him to the median where four others frantically tried CPR.
But no one could feel a pulse. And, through the black smoke, no one could see the other adult and young child left in the car.
Authorities have not released the names of the three people who died in the four-vehicle collision, which occurred at 4:12 p.m.
Tampa police said a 29-year-old Brandon woman who had been passing other eastbound vehicles lost control of her Kia and struck the Hyundai, sending the sedan through the expressway median and into the westbound lanes. The Hyundai was struck by a Jeep and an Infiniti sport utility vehicle before bursting into flames.
The crash forced the closure of the expressway for 10 hours, until about 2:30 a.m. Friday.
The Kia's driver, Amber Nicole Perera, sped from the scene without stopping to render aid, police said.
Perera was held without bail at the Hillsborough County jail on three counts of DUI manslaughter, DUI with serious bodily injury, leaving the scene of a crash involving death and destruction of evidence.
Yet Perera's family say it wasn't drugs or alcohol but a health issue that caused the crash.
"All I know is that she had a seizure," her grandmother, Violet Perera of Riverview said in a phone interview Friday.
Perera's arrest report makes no mention of a seizure but said she admitted to using prescription medications Ativan and Lexapro. Both substances are commonly prescribed for anxiety; Ativan is also used to control seizures.
She was arrested 2-1/2 miles away, at the intersection of Platt Street and Willow Avenue, after damage from the crash disabled her Kia, according to arrest reports.
Perera, a paralegal according to a jail record, was slurring her words and showed signs of impairment during a field sobriety test, police said. She cooperated with police when taken to Tampa General Hospital to provide a blood sample, police spokesman Steve Hegarty said.
But after Perera's blood was drawn, the arrest report said she "removed the vials of blood and concealed them in her underwear," leading to the destruction of evidence charge.
It was not clear from the report how she managed to secret away the blood samples. Tampa General spokeswoman Ellen Fiss said federal patient confidentiality requirements prevent her from commenting on the incident.
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Confronted about the vials, Perera admitted she had them "and she later urinated on the hospital room floor," the arrest report said. A second blood sample was taken because of the tampering and investigators are awaiting the results.
If there is no evidence of alcohol in Perera's blood, lawyers on both sides likely will focus on her field sobriety test, her behavior at the scene and a quantitative analysis of any drugs in her blood, said Melissa Loesch, a criminal defense attorney with the firm of Roger Futerman & Associates who handles DUI cases.
Such cases that involve prescription drugs alone can be more difficult for prosecutors to prove, Loesch said, because, unlike alcohol, there is no presumption of impairment based on the amount of a specific drug in a person's blood. Defense lawyers also can argue that factors such as height and weight influence how the drug affects behavior.
"Some people are on prescription medications for years and years and they have quite a tolerance and it doesn't impair them," Loesch said. "There certainly is an argument you can make for the legitimate reason why someone has a prescription drug in their system."
Violet Perera declined to elaborate on what she was told caused the collision but said the family wants the facts of the case to come to light as soon as possible.
"We do want to get her story out there because she's being bashed so terribly," the older Perera said. "It's not that we don't feel for the families who lost loved ones. We do because we also lost a son to a tragic accident. I know both sides of the coin so we're all really hurting right now."
There were no guardrails on the stretch of the expressway where the crashes occurred. In its aftermath, multiple witnesses have questioned whether they could have saved people's lives.
Susan Chrzan, a spokeswoman for the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority, said guard rails also can cause cars that swerve out of their lanes to ricochet back into traffic like a pinball, which can also be dangerous. And having open medians for at least half of the roadway's 15-mile length allows emergency responders to get to crashes more quickly, she said.
"If you put a guardrail up, you need to make sure there's space so that the responder doesn't have to go all the way down to Gandy (Boulevard) to turn around," she said.
Chrzan said there has been only one accident in that section of the expressway in the last four years in which a car crossed over the median,
Amber Perera's driving record includes several minor offenses, and in 2013 she pleaded guilty to knowingly driving with a suspended license, Hillsborough County court records show. She was cited for the same offense in 2006 in Citrus County.
It was nearly 8 p.m. before Rogers, a contractor, got home to Seffner to eat his dinner Thursday.
His keys had fallen out of his pocket as he attempted to free the unconscious driver. The heat from the blazing Hyundai melted his key fob, making it impossible to start his truck.
Officer David Fernandez gave Rogers a ride home and talked with his wife and kids to help them understand what he had been through. He talked with Rogers, too, he said, as have other officers who called to thank him for stopping to help.
Still, Rogers said he barely slept that night.
"Thoughts just kept running through my head; wishing I could have done more, wishing I had known about the child in the car, wishing I hadn't gotten stopped at that red light and could have gotten to them 45 seconds earlier," he said.
"Those are the kind of things I keep thinking about."
Staff writers Howard Altman and Sara DiNatale and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.