A sport-utility vehicle may have driven four miles or more in the wrong direction on Interstate 275 before crashing head-on into a car carrying four University of South Florida fraternity members and killing them.
Troopers today were reviewing evidence from the horrific wreck, which also killed the driver of the SUV. Who he is and why he was driving the wrong way early Sunday morning remained unanswered questions.
One key to the answers: Which entrance onto the interstate did the driver take to end up going south in the northbound lanes — or did he make a U-turn across the interstate median somewhere before he slammed his 2001 Ford Expedition into the midsize 2010 Hyundai Sonata near the Busch Boulevard interchange.
Killed in the Sonata were Jobin Joy Kuriakose, 21, of Orlando, Ankeet Harshad Patel, 22, of Melbourne, Imtiyaz Ilias, 20, of Fort Myers, and Dammie Yesudhas, 21, of Melbourne.
Robert DiBacco said he and his brother-in-law were northbound on I-275 early Sunday when DiBacco saw a pair of headlights in the distance coming his way. As the vehicle drew closer, DiBacco realized it was on a collision course with him.
He and some other drivers pulled to the far right-hand side of the road, he said. It was about a half-mile north of Bearss Avenue, meaning the SUV driver drove at least four miles in the wrong direction before colliding with the students’ car.
The next interchange north of Bearss is about seven miles away, in Pasco County, after I-275 merges into Interstate 75.
“He flew by me,” DiBacco said.
“That guy wasn’t swerving, he was just flying straight in that lane. My personal opinion, I don’t think he was drunk driving. He was going straight as an arrow. He was flying. He didn’t look like he cared.
“We called 911,” DiBacco said.
He continued on and dropped his brother-in-law off in Pasco County.
“I drove back home and saw the wreck. It was just an eerie feeling the next morning when I found out about the deaths of those guys.”
A dark cell phone video taken by a woman driving in the southbound lanes shows that along one stretch of I-275, while headed the wrong way, the Expedition passed about a half-dozen cars a burst of flame erupts.
“We do not know where he came on the interstate,” said highway patrol Sgt. Steve Gaskins. “It was north of Busch, so there’s Fowler, Fletcher and Bearss, but we don’t know. He may have crossed the median. We can say with some level of certainty that he was going the wrong way for at least a mile or two, at least.”
Cameras are mounted along the path the Expedition driver took but they show real-time video feeds only and do not record.
Sections of I-275 from downtown north to Sligh Avenue are under construction, but not in the area where the wreck happened, Gaskins said.
The highway patrol received several calls about the wrong-way driver before the crash and investigators were going over those calls.
“Cross streets indicated by the witnesses included Bearss, Fowler and Fletcher,” Gaskins said. “I understand other agencies may have also received calls as well.”
The positive identification of the driver of the Ford may take a few days, Gaskins said.
“The driver was extremely burned,” Gaskins said. “We are working with the medical examiner’s office to positively identify who he is, though it might take medical records.”
Toxicology tests, which will determine if the drivers were impaired, take six to eight weeks, he said.
Among the first to arrive on the scene was Henry Williams with Tampa Fire Rescue. “That was literally one of the worst calls I have ever been to,” said Williams, who has been on the job nine years. “It’s so tragic the amount of loss ... the carnage, just knowing they were young men. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen that much tragedy at one time in one place.”
Rescue personnel were helpless as the five people in the two vehicles died in the wreckage and flames.
“It’s difficult, as first responders,” Williams said. “It’s our job to make the most of the situation and when you feel like you can’t, you just feel hopeless.”
After the scene was cleared, firefighters and paramedics met and talked about what they had seen and whether counseling would be necessary to deal with the tragedy.
“We feel for the families,” he said, “but, internally, we have to look out for ourselves as well.”
The fraternity members belonged to Sigma Beta Rho at USF. Three were current students and one a former student, University President Judy Genshaft said in a news release Sunday. She did not say which was a former student.
As news of the wreck spread, a fund to benefit the families of the students grew by tens of thousands of dollars, with individual donations ranging from $5 to $500.
By late this afternoon, more than 1,700 donations had totaled more than $56,000.
The donation site gofundme.com was linked by the USF Alumni Association Facebook page.
The fund, set up by Sigma Beta Rho national president Mohsin “Rhythmk” Hussain, saw a steady stream of donations.
“It is unimaginable what the families must be going through right now,” said the message on the donation website. “As we all work through this difficult time, it is important for us to come together and form a support net for the family.
The fraternity, founded in 1966 at the University of Pennsylvania, operates no house for its local chapter but they are close.
“They were very passionate, driven guys motivated to be great students and to excel at academics,” said Jigar Patel, the fraternity’s alumni adviser. “They brought out the best of the rest of us.”
SigRho, as the fraternity was known, originally was made up of south Asian students but has evolved into a multicultural fraternity.
The USF chapter, started in 2001, meets regularly in the Marshall Student Center. A memorial service for the four students will be held later this week at USF, though the details had not been worked out.
“They were brilliant guys. This is a tough loss for our organization and their families,” Patel said. “I can’t imagine what their families are going through right now.”
The Tampa Bay community and USF “really came through” for the victims and their families, said Patel. “They deserve no less.”
Sigma Beta Rho members are given nicknames, and the significance of each is known only to members. Kuriakose, who was studying political science and business, was known as “Brother Ambition”; Harshad, a finance major, was “Brother Facetious”; Yesudhas, studying mechanical engineering and mathematics, was “Brother Netflix”; and Ilias, majoring in health science and nursing, was “Brother Radnac.”
“It is extremely humbling to know so many people have stepped up and helped us get through this,” said Raj Patel, president of the local fraternity. “It is helping the family members as well.”
Tribune reporter Jerome R. Stockfisch contributed to this report.