MANATEE — Courtney Starling always lit up her eighth-grade classroom with her bright clothes and brighter personality.
But on Monday, news of her death in a traffic crash on Interstate 75 on Sunday afternoon, left Haile Middle School students and teachers shocked and in a state of grief.
Courtney R. Starling, 14, was pronounced dead at the scene of the 1:30 p.m. crash, just south of I-275, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.
Troopers say Courtney was riding in the backseat of a 1995 Ford Explorer sport utility vehicle that overturned on the highway after a rear tire on the vehicle split.
“We are so very, very saddened,” said Haile Principal Janet Kerley. “She had a lot of friends.”
Troopers say the driver of the Ford, Courtney’s stepfather John Vincent Dimeglio, 46, of Bradenton, lost control of the vehicle after the left rear tire of the SUV split at the tread line, according to FHP Lt. Chris Miller.
The SUV then spun around, left the road onto a grass median, before overturning into the southbound lanes of the I-275 on-ramp. The SUV came to rest on its roof.
Courtney, who had a seatbelt on, was partially ejected from the vehicle and died from her injuries, according to a FHP report.
Dimeglio and an 8-year-old girl, Hannah Dimeglio, also in the back seat, had minor injuries. Courtney’s mother, 38-year-old Tanya Dimeglio, riding in the passenger seat, had to be airlifted to Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg with serious injuries.
Everyone in the vehicle had a seatbelt on, according to the FHP report.
The Dimeglios could not be reached for comment Monday.
Miller said the crash is still under investigation, including what caused the tire to split.
At Haile, Courtney’s first period classmates were met by grief counselors, who were busy throughout the day meeting with students, Kerley said.
Instead of seeing their classmate known for wearing the bright neon clothes and a set of colorful high-top sneakers that could not be missed, Courtney’s classmates only felt grief, said her first period language arts teacher Angela Chaltis.
Courtney loved gymnastics and excelled in dance classes at Haile, which Chaltis also teaches.
“It has been a tough day,” Chaltis said. “She was a beautiful young lady. She loved neon colors; lime green was her favorite. And it matched her personality. She was a very bright person.”
Her classmates spent Monday writing cards to Courtney’s family and signing a giant paper mural set up in the school’s cafeteria, Chaltis said.
Courtney walked to her own beat in life, a rare self-assurance for a person her age, said her social studies teacher Adam Waxler.
“What stood out to me was she didn’t care what other people thought of her,” Waxler said. “I really admired that, especially in the eighth grade when everybody is trying to do anything to fit in and be like everyone else. She was a very self-confident person.”
It will also be the little things Waxler said he would miss about having Courtney in his class. Their chats about the Tampa Bay Rays and star pitcher Matt Garza, her favorite player, stand out.
“She was a big Rays fan,” Waxler said. “She told me she got to meet Garza once.”