On the 29th of each month, Jessika Carmo pulls her father's black winter jacket out of a closet and caresses the blanketlike fabric.
"When I wear it, I feel like he's there," she said.
Her monthly ritual always brings tears, difficult memories and hope that the pain one day will subside.
On Jan. 29, 2012, a series of crashes on a stretch of smoke-filled Interstate 75 killed her father and his fiance, her uncle, her aunt and her 17-year-old cousin. In all, 11 people were killed in a tragedy that forever changed Jessika's life.
"I just look through my dad's stuff," said Jessika, an 18-year-old high school senior in Georgia, "and I'm like 'I can't believe you're gone.' "
• • •
The Carmo family was headed home to an Atlanta suburb after a Christian conference in Orlando. Two of the family were pastors, and they wanted to make it back for the Sunday service.
Jessika was back in Georgia, sleeping as the early morning hours passed. Something shook her awake, and her dad came to her mind. She resolved to call him in the morning.
At the same time, a fire slowly crept through the dry brush of Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, a few miles south of Gainesville. The fire spread until it covered 62 acres and sent a blanket of smoke over I-75.
The Florida Highway Patrol had closed off the interstate, but later reopened it.
About 4 a.m., a chain-reaction of accidents began. Within minutes at least a dozen vehicles crashed on both sides of the interstate, killing 11 and injuring at least 20.
Jessika's cousin, Lidiane Carmo, was the only survivor in her family's van. A parishioner recalled how she was found barely moving on top of her parents' bodies.
A Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation found the Florida Highway Patrol was responsible for reopening the interstate. The patrol subsequently required more training for their officers.
The case has led to several lawsuits, and the families of both Jessika and Lidiane are working with lawyers. Capt. Nancy Rasmussen, Florida Highway Patrol chief of public relations, said she couldn't comment on the policy changes because of pending lawsuits.
Days after the accident, the families struggled.
For Jessika's younger brother, Jefferson, the grief came out as anger. He wanted to throw away his father's possessions rather than try to cope with his loss.
Her cousin, Lidiane, bottled up, hiding her emotions when she returned to high school in Georgia, said classmate Grant Tucker, 16.
Jessika drifted. Her grief came out in distraction and tears. She'd run to her mom and her friends and ask, "Why? Why them?"
She started to fail her classes.
• • •
Jessika sometimes turns to Facebook to ease her grief.
"Today makes a year that you went to rest daddy," Jessika wrote on Tuesday as her status. "I still can't believe it happened let alone accept it. I have missed you so much and life isn't the same without you."
She's attending church. She has improved her grades.
"I've been trying to do better things now,'' she said, "things that would make my dad proud if he were still here."
Jefferson, now an eighth-grader, has calmed down. "Before, he would always be very distant and never say, 'Oh mom, I love you,' " she said. "And now he does."
In another year, Jessika trusts, the gripping pain will continue to loosen as she heads to college for a career in criminal justice.
In a way, the crash solidified that calling. She wants to prevent such accidents from happening again. "Time makes it better," she said. "We get used to it, but we never truly accept it."
Meredith Rutland can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8804.