SEMINOLE — The slash pine, with its rugged bark and rigid grooves, was a towering testament to pain.
It stood while the teenagers fell.
The Good Friday Boys, people call them, because that's the night they died.
Joey Ruzecki, 16. Nate Richardson, 15. Keith MacCollom, 17. LeShawn Smith, 16. Only Corey LePore, 17, survived.
They were athletes from Seminole and Largo high schools. They were popular and funny with dreams of college, the kind of guys one principal called bread and butter.
Late on the night of April 10, their car burst into flames after it slammed into the tall pine tree nestled in a tidy neighborhood along 141st Street in Seminole. Four were thrown, one was trapped. Only Corey, the one thrown the farthest, survived.
It was the most brutal, gut-wrenching accident anyone here could remember. Students fell to their knees and bellowed. Citizens and politicians debated speed humps and emergency response time. Strangers shuddered, because it could have been their own.
The tree stood.
The teens' families drove past it constantly. Some, like the Ruzeckis, lived nearby and had no choice.
They saw the makeshift memorial, the tributes, the sneakers hanging in the branches, the many sentiments scrawled on a fence behind the tree.
I don't think you boys will ever understand the impact you all had on our lives.
Tears won't bring you home.
I never met you guys, but I heard the horrible news and almost cried.
The families saw the teens gathered after school almost every day, sitting in the grass and talking about their sons. They saw the love.
But they also saw a hulking reminder of what they lost.
They wanted it gone.
The families reached out to local tree trimmers. Montague Pereira, owner of El Cheapo Tree Service, got permission from the landowner and donated his company's time to cut it down.
Saturday, everyone watched.
The chain saw severed branch after branch with a buzz and a crack and a bang. Dust and sap and heat seeped out.
"It's the last place they were," said Kim Brown, Corey's mother. "They were such beautiful young boys. It's so hard."
"It helps in our healing," said Joey's dad, John Ruzecki. He wanted everyone to know that his son's toxicology reports came back clean. Joey was driving that night, but not drinking. "They made an impact in their 16 years. Great boys."
Some felt conflicted.
"It's hard to explain," said Nikki Labruto, 17, who once dated LeShawn. "It's sad. It's a place for everybody to come."
Some took video.
"It's the end of one chapter," said Ursula Stenzel, whose daughter Sonja was best friends with Joey. He always turned off his cell phone to listen to her problems, she said. And Keith taught her daughter how to waterski.
She watched the chain saw slice through the trunk. "It wasn't the tree's fault, but … "
The workers neared the bottom, cutting the slash pine at its base just inches from the ground. It cracked. The crane lifted it away into the sky. There were no cheers or hoots or walloping hollers of grief.
Kim Brown grabbed her heart.
Friends took home pine cones and thick slices of the tree. They thought about making Christmas ornaments and tables to hold the four teens' photos. Maybe they'd just display the wood in a case.
They'll keep coming back.
"No matter what, there's still going to be a place to visit," said Will James, 17.
The families will install a cement slab inscribed with a poem, and a bench. Around it, they'll plant two new trees.
Dogwoods. They break on impact, and they bloom.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8857.