TAMPA — About 600 mourners — family, friends and law enforcement — gathered Friday morning at Congregation Kol Ami to pay their respects to the Wesley Chapel family killed last week in a small plane crash in Arizona.
The hourlong service, which was closed, included remembrances about each member of the Ulrich family. Jeffrey, Ronni, Alexa and Carlie Ulrich were celebrated as a family who lived life to the fullest.
Jeffrey Ulrich, 50, was a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and a member of the Seven Oaks neighborhood watch in Wesley Chapel. Ronni, 47, was a stay-at-home mother who poured her energies into her family and her community.
"Ronni was always a ray of sunshine and always had a smile on her face and a kind word on her lips," friend Tina Reich Aviles wrote in the Segal Funeral Home online guest book.
The couple's older daughter Alexa, 15, known to everybody as Lexi, just finished her sophomore year at Wiregrass Ranch High School, where she ran cross country and track. Friends remembered her as someone who always made them smile; acquaintances said she always made them feel welcome.
Alexa's little sister, Carlie, 5, just finished kindergarten at Seven Oaks Elementary. She attended preschool in Virginia before the family moved to Florida a couple of years ago.
"She was a spunky, lovable little bundle of energy," Michele Depue, Carlie's preschool teacher, wrote in the funeral home's online guest book. "She used to run up to me and give me the biggest hug every time she saw me."
Authorities are still investigating the crash, and it may be months before they determine what went wrong. The crash happened in Eagar, Ariz., shortly after the single-engine Piper Saratoga took off from a nearby airstrip.
The family was on a vacation to the Grand Canyon.
Sgt. Richard Guinn of the Apache County Sheriff's Office said it appears Jeffrey Ulrich, a pilot with more than 20 years of experience, was trying to gain altitude when the plane hit a light post and a tree, then crashed into a two-story high school.
The town of Eagar remains in mourning for the family they never knew. More than 200 people held a vigil Monday night. Students plan to create a college scholarship in Alexa's name, and the town is talking of creating a permanent memorial.
Residents have left flowers, candles, homemade signs and teddy bears at the gates of Round Valley High School.
Nearly 2,700 people — strangers and friends alike — have joined the Alexa tribute page on Facebook, swapping memories, sharing their grief.
"People always ask why it's the good who go first," wrote classmate Katelyn Rochelle. "It's because it is the good who get the privilege to stand beside God for eternity. Alexa Ulrich touched the lives of everyone she smiled at, everyone she shared a joke with, and everyone who is shedding tears at this sorrowful event."
Hundreds of Alexa's friends, fellow students and their parents gathered on the football field of Wiregrass Ranch High School Friday evening, swapping stories and leaving bouquets at the Ulrich's family portrait. The crowd marked memories and inside jokes in Sharpie on pink, white and purple balloons, which they let float away minutes after sunset.
Jack Whidden, who helped organize the flashlight vigil, hugged friends and shed tears as he spoke on a stage set up in front of the bleachers.
"She was one of the loveliest people ... I'm still kind of baffled saying that, as if she's gone," Whidden said. "Thank you, Lexi. ... Thank you for always being an amazing friend who will never be replaced."
Frank Shearrow, Alexa's law studies teacher, remembered Alexa as a warm student as girls in the crowd cried and dabbed at their makeup.
My students "know I don't like goodbyes," Shearrow said. "As you touch the face of God, I say, Lexi, see you later."
Nicole Phillips, 15, a good friend of Lexi's and a fellow cheerleader, said the girls had begun a scrapbook to be filled with pictures of their summer vacation.
"At the end, she wrote, 'To be Continued,' in her big bubbly handwriting," Phillips said, through tears. "Instead, we'll fill it with pictures of tonight."