Thirteen University of South Florida students got off the plane at Tampa International Airport tonight, bringing home something they didn't expect.
Their classmate and friend, Aly Zain Lakdawala, was supposed to be with them. Lakdawala, 21, has been missing since Saturday afternoon when he was caught in a riptide as he and three friends went swimming off the west coast of Costa Rica.
As authorities in Costa Rica continued the search today, the 13 other students who were with Lakdawala on the alternative summer break mission trip arrived in Tampa at 9:19 p.m. and immediately dodged a crowd of reporters to a private room at the airport where their parents and grief counselors waited for them.
Some were visibly weary, walking past stone-faced and silent. Others sobbed. All declined to comment.
"They're just very, very upset," said USF spokesman Michael Hoad, who met the students at the airport. "They were crying the whole way over here. They spent a week together and really bonded. And to lose a friend in the middle of that, it's horrible."
Lakdawala, a recent graduate, majored in international studies and philosophy. He is described as a "very involved student" by university officials, and was a member of the service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega and played intramural volleyball and soccer.
Bruno Portigliatti, vice president of student government, was in the Phi Alpha Delta law fraternity with Lakdawala. He said they spoke a few weeks ago about Lakdawala's future plans.
Portigliatti said Lakdawala told him about his upcoming trip to Costa Rica and that he was planning to start law school within the next year.
Lakdawala is a person who likes to help people, and that was why he was looking forward to the trip to Costa Rica, Portigliatti said.
"All of his friends are praying that he is found and safely returned to us," Stacie Bruton, another friend, wrote in an e-mail to TBO.com late this morning.
"Aly had a passion for helping others," she said. "He just returned from an alternative spring break trip to an orphanage in South Carolina. He was planning to return there during the summer as those kids had such an impact on him."
She said Lakdawala has had an impact not just on his friends, but also on everyone he met.
"He was always the person making us laugh and bringing us all together," she said.
"He was going to make a difference in this world. I know that he has made a difference just being my friend."
Lakdawala of Coral Springs and the 13 other students arrived in Costa Rica on May 8 and were originally set to return on Sunday. His disappearance prompted an early return home, Hoad said.
Maria Crummett, dean of International Affairs at USF, flew to Costa Rica on Sunday. Lakdawala's family also flew there over the weekend.
Lakdawala's father is in Costa Rica and has hired a private boat to help search for his son.
The students, part of the USF Leadership and Civic Engagement program, paid $1,200 for the trip and taught English in the village of Samara on the southwest coast. Students also worked on a sea turtle nesting project and volunteered at an orphanage in the capital, San Jose. The trip's itinerary included visits to the active Arenal Volcano and the rainforest, according to the university's Web site.