Mourners gathered on the side of Interstate 275 on Sunday evening to lay a wreath, bouquets and candles near the site of a fiery crash that killed four University of South Florida fraternity brothers and the driver who struck them head-on several hours earlier.
A group of about 100 students stood in stunned silence, abandoning their cars on the side of the highway as the sun set in attempts to console each other for the loss of their friends.
The crash happened just after 2 a.m. A 2001 Ford Expedition was traveling south in the northbound lanes of I-275, just north of Busch Boulevard, said Steve Gaskins, spokesman for the Florida Highway patrol.
An apparent video of the scene shot by a southbound driver and posted on her Facebook page shows the Expedition traveling at a high rate of speed as traffic whizzes by.
The driver can be heard screaming as a ball of flames fills the screen.
The Expedition crashed head-on into a 2010 Hyundai Sonata carrying the four men, Gaskins said.
The Expedition burst into flames. Authorities were still working to determine the identity of the SUV's driver due to the extensive fire damage, Gaskins said.
The front end of the Hyundai was also burned and its four occupants — driver Jobin Joy Kuriakose, 21, of Orlando, Ankeet Harshad Patel, 22, of Melbourne, Imtiyaz Ilias, 20, of Fort Myers, and Dammie Yesudhas, 21, of Melbourne — were killed at the scene, Gaskins said.
They were members of USF's Sigma Beta Rho fraternity.
Saturday night was game night with the fraternity and the brothers were supposed to spend Sunday evening in a chapter meeting instead of on the side of the road, said 23-year-old Sigma Rho member Joseph Oibo.
“It helps to know we were all with each other the last night, but the whole night we were talking about how we were going to have a great year, and I can't believe that they're gone right now when we have so much to do, even class on Monday,” Oibo said. “They're beautiful people, so young and ready for what's in store for them. Some of them were about to graduate. All of them were taking tests for their degrees — LSATS, GRE, MCAT — in just a few moments, they were gone because of an oncoming car that they couldn't expect.”
They were gentle, loving, and always smiling, their friends said. They all had sweethearts on their minds, plotting ways to win them over on Valentine's Day and dreaming about what the weekend would hold, Oibo said
“They were so sweet, gentle and kind to everybody. We could never think something bad would happen to these guys,” said friend Mohammed Reza.
Ilias was a nursing student, Patel was studying finance, Yesudhas' major was mechanical engineering and Kuriakose was studying political science.
“He was like our third son,” said Mohammed Rahmam of Ilias, known to friends as Jim. said. “I have two sons about the same age as him. We were very close. He spent a lot of nights with my kids at my home.”
Rumi Rahmam, Mohammed Rahmam's son, and Ilias grew up together. They first met when Ilias was 3 and Rumi was 5, Rahmam said. Even after Rumi moved away to attend the University of Florida in Gainesville, their bond remained strong.
“We spoke maybe a few times a week,” Rumi Rahmam, 23, said. “He looked at me as an older brother and he would call me, ask me how I'm doing, what I've been up to.”
To Rahmam, Ilias was a big personality.
“Jim was very radiant. He was one of those people that had the ability to light up an entire room — even those who were upset,” Mohammed Rahmam said. “Jim had this radiant smile, he had this upbeat, almost comical personality. He was always the jokester in the room.”
Raj Patel, president of the USF chapter of Sigma Beta Rho, directed media and police roadside Sunday, facing the cameras so his friends could grieve. After a few brief words, the group disbanded with the Sigma Beta Rho chant and a silent salute. The fraternity will hold a remembrance ceremony Thursday at 3:30 p.m. in the USF Marshall Student Center.
“We're devastated by the loss of our brothers,” Patel said. “Our condolences go out to their families as well as the driver (of the truck). We lost four talented young men and now we're just asking everyone to respect the privacy of their families and their friends.”
The university's counseling center will be available to help students' struggling with the loss.
“Mere words cannot convey the depth of shock and sadness this terrible event brings to all who knew and cherished these wonderful young men,” USF President Judy Genshaft said in a statement.
Authorities said they are investigating whether drugs or alcohol played a role in the crash.
The highway was closed for several hours following the crash and re-opened around 7 a.m.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.