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Sunday, Dec 16, 2018
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A wrong-way driver slammed into her on the Howard Frankland Bridge. She's alive and grateful.

TAMPA - Just before the crash, Andrea Rusch saw a piece of fruit in the moon.

The 24-year-old bartender had worked a Halloween day shift at Ferg's Sports Bar and Grill in St. Petersburg, then spent the evening with a friend on Treasure Island. They'd been talking for hours when Rusch looked at her phone and realized it was after 1 a.m. She got into her Hyundai and started the drive home to Tampa.

She remembers heading north on Interstate 275 and cruising onto the approach to the Howard Frankland Bridge. A half-moon glowed over Tampa Bay.

"The last thing I remember, I looked up and thought how the moon looked like a lemon wedge," Rusch recalled.

Seconds later, a Chrysler sedan heading the wrong way on the bridge slammed head-on into Rusch's Veloster. She woke up late the next night in St. Joseph's Hospital's intensive care unit.

She was still in the hospital Monday when she spoke with the Tampa Bay Times, recounting what she could about that night and marveling at the support she's received in her recovery.

"I'm just a really humble person and I'm still at this point where I don't understand why everybody's doing this for me," she said, her voice breaking, "but I'm really, really, really thankful."

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When she came to, Rusch's loved ones told her she'd been in a head-on crash, that a drunk driver was at fault. Days later, Rusch used a friend's tablet to log on to the internet and saw the news coverage.

She learned that 25-year-old Andy Cuff Jr. had been driving north on the bridge in a Chrysler 300 when, for reasons that remain unclear, he turned around near the center span and started driving south, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.

She learned that Cuff was taken to St. Joseph's, too, but was discharged hours later, arrested and booked into the Pinellas County jail on charges of DUI involving serious injury and property damage. She saw photos of her mangled Hyundai, a deflated curtain airbag hanging like a white flag over the crumpled driver's compartment.

She was already feeling grateful to be alive when she learned that two weeks earlier, another innocent driver was critically injured in an eerily similar crash on the same stretch of highway. A Pinellas Park man turned around on the same side of the bridge as Cuff and drove two to three miles before hitting a van. The wrong-way driver, who authorities suspected was impaired by alcohol, died at the scene.

"I think I've been surreally calm about the whole thing," she said. "I've definitely had some upsets and days when I'm not okay, but when I woke up, I was just happy to be here."

Rusch's survival wasn't guaranteed at first, though. She was in critical condition when her parents Jim and Marlene arrived, a tube helping her breathe, her father said. Surgeons had to operate right away to stop internal bleeding. She had organ damage and multiple fractures and cuts.

Jim Rusch remembered how relieved the family was when Andrea opened her eyes, her mouth curving around the tube in the hint of a smile.

"I was elated, just to see her smile and move her hands and toes and respond the best she could," Rusch said.

Rusch was upgraded to serious condition a few days after she arrived and would undergo two more surgeries, spending a week in the intensive care unit. Meanwhile, a GoFundMe page created by a family friend to help with medical bills climbed steadily toward, then past, its $10,000 goal. The page titled "Angels for Andrea" notes that Rusch lacks health insurance and won't be able to work for "a very long time."

By Tuesday morning, more than 200 people had donated more than $15,000 - a generous sum, though likely only a fraction of the total cost of Rusch's medical care.

Her extended family at Ferg's, where Rusch has worked as a server and bartender for about six years, is putting on a fundraiser there Nov. 23. There will be live music and raffles from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Admission is free but patrons will be asked to offer a donation, said owner Mark "Ferg" Ferguson. Ferg's will also donate 20 percent of its own proceeds from the event.

"She's one of those people who brightens up a room every time she walks in. She's always positive," Ferguson said. "People have been calling asking, 'How can we help, what can we do.'"

Rusch didn't want to talk about Cuff, but her father said they plan to follow his court case closely. Rusch said he was glad to see that the Florida Department of Transportation is planning to install video analytics software attached to closed-circuit cameras on the Howard Frankland to detect wrong-way drivers and dispatch Highway Patrol troopers.

But even high-tech cameras can only go so far, Jim Rusch said. "How do you use technology to prevent people from making stupid decisions?"

Cuff's attorney, Brandon Kolb, declined to comment on details of the case but said he was glad to hear Rusch was doing better.

"We're happy to see that she's got some community support behind her and hope she's able to make a full recovery," Kolb said.

Rusch is focusing instead on silver linings - her family, friends and the generosity of donors. Her boyfriend Jose Alminana, a bartender at Anchor Bar in Tampa, has spent every night at the hospital with her. The bass player of her favorite band, Umphrey's McGee, sent her a get-well video. She'll be discharged from the hospital this week, still in pain but with a good long-term prognosis.

The ordeal also reinforced a philosophy she was already carrying with her when she got behind the wheel that night.

"It can happen to anybody," she said, "and you need to be super grateful for everything you have."

Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

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