March 21, 2013

Florida Keys highway sees fresh spate of crashes, death, destruction

U.S. 1 in the Florida Keys has become a deadly demolition derby in recent days.

U.S. 1 in the Florida Keys has become a deadly demolition derby in recent days.

•  A 67-year-old man died Tuesday morning after crashing his truck into a vacant Key Largo building just a week after a Colorado motorcyclist died on the Seven Mile Bridge.
•  Monday night, a Homestead woman ended up closing down the 18-Mile Stretch connecting the Keys to the mainland after she reportedly was at the wheel of a hit-and-run in Key Largo.
•  The Long Key Bridge around mile marker 65 has been the scene of three crashes since March 1.

On Tuesday around 7:05 a.m., James Hightower, 67, of Islamorada was driving a 2004 Ford F-150 northbound on U.S. 1's inside lane and, "for unknown reasons," according to the Florida Highway Patrol, drove off the road at mile marker 99 and struck a traffic sign and bushes before crashing into a former Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Hightower died at Mariners Hospital and became the Keys' seventh traffic fatality of the year.

That came fewer than 12 hours after another crash around the same location that ultimately resulted in the closing of the Stretch and the arrest of Homestead resident Lenna Danker, 57, on five misdemeanor counts, two drunk-driving related.

According to state troopers, Danker was driving a 2012 Nissan Rogue SUV around 7 p.m. Monday when she was involved in a hit-and-run at mile marker 99, apparently striking a 2013 Chrysler 300.

Fifteen minutes later, troopers say, Danker had made her way to the stretch and at mile marker 111 "steered the vehicle right, colliding into the east concrete barrier wall." The car then "overturned three times traveling in a northerly direction."

Danker was taken to Mariners Hospital in Tavernier, where she refused to submit to a breath test. However, a blood draw shows she had a .23 blood alcohol level, nearly three times the .08 legal limit. And in her car, troopers say they found quarter-full bottle of Patron tequila and antidepressants.

The stretch remained closed for about two hours; traffic was diverted to Card Sound Road.

Danker's charged with driving under influence, DUI-property damage, leaving the scene of an accident, reckless driving and refusing a breath test.

On March 12 around 10:15 a.m., a motorcyclist died after getting thrown from his bike on the Seven Mile Bridge after clipping a riding mate's tire.

Troopers say Colorado residents Chris Leaf and Jim Luckeroth were riding Harley-Davidsons north on the bridge and attempted to use the southbound lane to overtake traffic in front of them.

Leaf, 45, reportedly followed Luckeroth, 56, into the passing lane, but Luckeroth slowed when he noticed a police car up ahead. He "decided to slow down and pull behind the police vehicle," troopers said.

Leaf apparently couldn't stop his 2011 Harley in time, striking the rear tire of Luckeroth's 2008 bike. Leaf's bike reportedly fell onto its side and he was thrown from it onto the road.

Leaf, of Kersey, Colo., was taken to Fishermen's Community Hospital in Marathon before being airlifted to Ryder Trauma Center in Miami, where he died. Luckeroth, of Greeley, Colo., wasn't injured.

As for the Long Key Bridge, it's been a dangerous place to drive.

Troopers said that around 8:20 p.m. Saturday, 22-year-old Jacksonville resident Rebecca Ucciardo was traveling south in the northbound lane and nearly collided head-on with Tamarac resident Horatio Smith, 62.

Smith reportedly steered left to avoid the collision and the front end of Ucciardo's 2000 Chrysler struck the right side of Smith's 1999 Toyota.

Ucciardo's car reportedly struck the bridge wall and caught fire, while Smith collided with the wall on both sides of the bridge before finally stopping.

Ucciardo and her passenger, Molly Batchelor, 22, were injured. Smith wasn't but his passenger, 52-year-old Clara Samuels, was. Monroe County Fire Rescue units took the injured to Fishermen's and Mariners hospitals. The crash closed the bridge for about an hour.

The bridge was also the site of a March 8 afternoon crash and a five-car pileup on March 1 that closed the span for hours.

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