PASCO COUNTY, Fla. — When Florida Highway Patrol Master Trooper Toni Schuck positioned her cruiser in an attempt to stop an accused drunk driver from reaching participants in the Skyway 10K, she said she was just doing her job.
Other people have since given the 47-year-old trooper a title for her bravery and rising above the call to service: a hero.
"I've heard that," Schuck said during a news conference Thursday, "and even my son is constantly saying that to me when he sees me at home. I did my job. Like I said, I was sworn to protect, and that's what I felt I did."
Schuck's cruiser, a formidable-looking Chevy Tahoe, had its front-end crashed inward by a BMW driven by 52-year-old Kristen Watts of Sarasota. Watts had a medical blood alcohol level of .271, which is more than three times the legal limit of .08 in Florida, according to the FHP.
Schuck, a 26-year veteran of the state agency, currently works in commercial vehicle enforcement. She recalled helping to shut down the northbound lanes of Interstate 275 just south of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge for the fifth annual race.
Schuck was one of many troopers stationed near the bridge to make sure no one drove on. The road was also barricaded. Troopers say Watts drove through those barricades, passed checkpoints and failed to pull over for troopers.
Schuck recalled hearing on her radio that Watts was headed her way around 9 a.m.
“Where I’m positioned is about a half a mile from the starting point," Schuck explained.
That starting point is where many racers still were. Troopers say they believe Watts was going faster than 65 mph as she drove in the direction of the bridge. Schuck was the last trooper who could've blocked Watts before she would have made it onto the bridge where runners were.
“I knew I was the last one. I knew there was no one else behind me," Schuck stated.
That's when Schuck drove in the middle of the road with her lights on. Schuck was hoping Watts would see her patrol car and stop, but that didn't happen. Watts drove right into Schuck's car, nearly hitting her head-on.
“I’m thankful it was me. I’m thankful she didn’t get passed me," Schuck stated.
Dashcam video from Schuck's cruiser showed the BMW approach at high speed and crash nearly head-on into the Tahoe. Just in the moments prior, Schuck felt convinced she was going to stop.
"She was in the outside lane, and I saw her veer to the left," Schuck said. "I thought if she saw me veer to the left again, she's going to stop. ...Again, in my mind, she's going to stop. The next thing was the crash."
At the time, Schuck said she wasn't sure if any more race participants were coming down to the starting line. But she did know, she said, an all-clear wasn't yet given. It was overwhelming being in the ambulance and seeing people still on the bridge when it passed by, she added.
"It was just a situation where I knew there were people there, and I'm thankful it was me, I'm thankful that she didn't get past me," Schuck said. "...Even on her behalf, she could have stopped. She could have just stopped, but she chose to do what she did.
"She was injured, and I don't like that either because, you know, she could have just stopped, that's the moral of the story, I guess."
Watts and Schuck were rushed to the hospital for treatment of serious injuries. During Watts' first court appearance Monday, the judge learned Schuck had a serious head wound with a concussion and bleeding that required stitches. The injuries are expected to cause permanent scarring to her head and face, according to what was discussed in court.
But now, Schuck said, she's alright and "getting there." She thinks of the "what ifs" at times, thinking what would happen if that speeding car had somehow gotten past her.
The spokesman for Skyway 10K was on the bridge at the time. James Judge had just started the race and said there were thousands of people on the bridge. He thanks Schuck for saving his life.
"The only that was between me and that person was you," Judge told Schuck.
"Heroic in every aspect of the word," Judge added.
Schuck said she plans to return to work, but for now, she’s going to be home recovering with her family. She didn't disclose the full extent of her injuries for legal reasons.
In the days since the crash, Schuck said the outpouring of support, the flowers — which now cover her table like a floral store, she joked — notes and everything else from everywhere across the country has been overwhelming. She's trying to respond to everyone she can and intends to come back to duty.
Anyone who wants to provide a donation is asked to consider giving to the Tunnels to Towers Foundation, a nonprofit organization that Schuck and her husband donate to in honor of first responders, veterans and their families.
The Florida Highway Patrol says there is no authorized GoFundMe page connected to the crash that injured Schuck, "so please do not donate there."
To the woman accused of injuring her and causing the crash, Schuck said she has nothing to say to her.
Watts is charged with DUI causing serious bodily injury, DUI with damage to property or person and reckless driving with damage to property or a person. Online records show she remains jailed on a $52,000 bond.