TAMPA — Jason Crimi learned just how fast a Honda Civic could go that December night in 2004.
He had just finished his final exams at the University of Central Florida when his dad called to tell him his brother, Kevin, was in the hospital. He wouldn’t say why, only that it was bad.
Crimi, then 21, rushed home. It’s a miracle he didn’t get pulled over on Interstate 4, he said.
Kevin, 19, was recently out of rehab and had missed his curfew by about 15 minutes after he had a fight with his girlfriend on Dec. 10. He argued briefly with their mother when he got home, then went into his bedroom and shut the door.
When his mom went in a few hours later to check on him, he was snoring loudly and struggling for air in his sleep. She rolled him over and blood ran out of his nose. Kevin had had a heart attack and his brain was bleeding.
“Imagine being that parent,” Crimi said. “Nothing a mother needs to see.”
The next day, when the doctors told the family that Kevin wasn’t going to wake up, they learned it was because he had overdosed on methadone, which is used to treat pain and heroin addiction.
“I don’t think any family should have to experience what we went through at that time,” Crimi said.
Now 32 and living in Ruskin, Crimi tells his younger brother’s story in hopes others will learn from it. On Thursday night, he told his story again to a crowd of several hundred people at an annual candlelight vigil put on by the local Narcotic Overdose Prevention and Education task force.
More than 140 people died of an overdose in Hillsborough County in 2013, said Michele Phillips, president of the local NOPE chapter. That number is down from the 253 deaths in 2009, but there is still much work to be done, she said.
Phillips helped form the local group after she lost her teenage son to an accidental overdose several years ago. NOPE volunteers, like Crimi and Phillips, talk at local schools about how narcotics addiction touched their lives, hoping to prevent teens from doing drugs or encouraging them to get help if they already do.
“If we can help one person get to an assistance program, then we’ve reached our goal,” Phillips said.
Crimi and his mother got involved with the organization about two years ago, he said. His mother helps set up for their various speaking engagements but doesn’t like to speak publicly about what happened to Kevin. His father has only recently felt able to attend Crimi’s speeches.
“It’s completely different now,” Crimi said about his parents. “They’re shadows of their former selves.”
Ten years later, Crimi still suffers, too. He tells his story to help others, but it hurts every time, he said.
“A part of you is released,” he said. “It takes up a lot of energy to go up there and speak about this subject. It’s not that I’m terrified or nervous, it’s just that the memories come back.”
Despite the protests of his family, Crimi feels guilty for not realizing something was wrong with Kevin sooner.
He last spoke with his brother the day before he died. The phone call still haunts him.
“You always remember what you said,” Crimi said. “And it was, ‘Hey, Kevin, is mom there? I need to talk to her.’ It wasn’t ‘Hey, how are you doing? How are things going?’”
Kevin and his twin sister, Jamie, graduated from Durant High School in 2003. He was on the golf team and loved music. Crimi joked that you could hear his brother’s car coming from miles away because he always had the bass turned up.
“He could basically enter a room of people he didn’t know and emerge with a couple of friends,” Crimi said. “That’s just the way he was.”
But Kevin had a stubborn, questioning streak in him that proved to be dangerous.
“If you told him no, that just wasn’t good enough,” Crimi said. “He wanted to know why, I guess.”
Eventually, that curiosity got the better of him, Crimi said.
He compared his brother’s descent into addiction to the path of a massive hurricane. At first, it starts off small and unorganized but as soon as it makes its way into the Gulf of Mexico and onto land, it morphs into a natural disaster, Crimi said.
Kevin started drinking and smoking when he was in his early teens and fell in with “the wrong crowd,” Crimi said. An assistant principal at the high school once called in his parents to discuss rumors he had heard about Kevin doing drugs, but Kevin denied it.
“They had no idea,” Crimi said. “His friends would cover for him pretty well. We didn’t know the indicators, what to look for, anything.”
But eventually, Crimi said, his family started to see the signs that Kevin was battling addiction with more dangerous substances. He would slur his speech and started to come home later and later every night.
In July 2004, Kevin finally went into rehab, Crimi said. After three months, he was released to his parents, who made sure he understood that he had a curfew and other house rules he had to follow if he didn’t want to get kicked out.
In that night in December, Kevin relapsed and took the methadone.
“I guess he took a dosage he was OK with before, but this time his body wasn’t,” Crimi said.
People ask him whenever he tells Kevin’s story whether he’ll ever recover from losing his brother, Crimi said. But for him, that lingering feeling of “what if?” will always be there, he said.
“Every single day I regret not being there for him and it’s something I live with every single day of my life,” he said.
He speaks for NOPE not to help himself heal or ease the guilt he feels, Crimi said. He does it for his brother and for anyone else who might be struggling with addiction or knows someone who is.
“My advice to them is it’s not a bad thing,” Crimi said. “It’s not telling on somebody. If you get them help, you’re a better friend than you can possibly ever imagine. Because if my family had known early on, we might have been able to save my brother.”