Thursday, January 18, 2018
Public safety

5 die in wrong-way crash on I-275 in Tampa

TAMPA

Dozens of men and women gathered on the shoulder of Interstate 275 shortly before sunset Sunday with flowers, candles and a wreath.

Less than 24 hours earlier, a fiery crash involving a wrong-way driver killed four University of South Florida fraternity brothers near the site. The collision also killed the driver of the wayward SUV that plowed into them in a crest of the highway shortly after 2 a.m. on a tragic Sunday along Hillsborough County roadways.

Two other accidents on different sides of Hillsborough claimed three additional lives.

The 100 friends and fellow USF students who gathered along Interstate 275 talked of grief and brotherhood as a Facebook video purporting to show the crash made its way across social media.

"Life is way too short, guys," Kareem Noorani, 24, said at the roadside memorial. "You guys all want to be doctors, lawyers, teachers. Whatever you want to be, do it for these four fine young men. If you're having a bad day, remember you're still here, living and breathing."

The I-275 crash, which closed the highway for nearly five hours, occurred a few hundred feet north of Busch Boulevard in the northbound lanes when the White Ford Expedition, traveling south, plowed head-on with a 2010 Hyundai Sonata carrying the four men, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.

The Expedition burst into flames, the FHP said, while the Sonata was torn apart and partly burned. All five men, including two in the Sonata who were wearing seat belts, died at the scene, troopers said.

The person behind the wheel of the Expedition has not yet been identified. Investigators are trying to determine where the driver entered I-275 and whether alcohol or drugs played a part in the crash, troopers said.

The driver of the Hyundai was Jobin Joy Kuriakose, 21, of Orlando, according to the Highway Patrol. His passengers were Ankeet Harshad Patel, 22, and Dammie Yesudhas, 21, of Melbourne; and Imtiyaz Ilias, 20, of Fort Myers.

All were members of Sigma Beta Rho fraternity, which is dedicated to cultural awareness. The off-campus fraternity, which has 20 active members, lost a fifth of its brotherhood in the crash.

"Obviously we're devastated by the loss of these brothers," fraternity president Raj Patel, no relation to Ankeet Patel, said. "Our grievances and condolences go out to those four families as well as to the family of the driver."

FHP investigators want to speak to a woman who posted on Facebook a stunning 52-second phone video that appears to show the white Expedition as it drives the wrong way on the interstate while more than a dozen oncoming vehicles pass it. The deadly collision cannot be seen clearly in the video, but it shows at least one vehicle burning immediately after the crash.

FHP spokesman Steve Gaskins said he could not say if the video is authentic. "We have not had a chance to speak to her," said Gaskins, referring to Jada Wright, who posted it on Facebook.

Wright did not return a message from the Tampa Bay Times. The video was removed from her Facebook page by 6 p.m. Sunday, though it is unclear why.

"RIP to the fallen angels from my video last night," Wright said on her Facebook page. "My deepest condolences to their families."

Wright seems puzzled at first as she begins to film the Expedition going south from where she was driving in the southbound lanes. "What is he doing?" Then she added: "He's on the wrong side … Where's he going?"

As the burning vehicle comes into camera view, Wright screams, "Oh my God! Oh my God!"

The crash took place right after the Expedition crested a small hill, so the driver of the Sonata would have had little time to react. Moments after the crash, the video shows Wright's speedometer, which indicates she was driving 70 mph. Before the collision, the Expedition appears to be slowly pulling away from Wright in the 55 mph zone.

Crystal Fountain told Bay News 9 that she dodged the SUV just moments before the crash.

"It was a car going directly at me in the same lane," Fountain said. "It was going straight, it was going fast, all I could think of was the car was on a death mission."

Fountain said as soon as she swerved out of the way and the SUV sped by, she looked in the side mirror and knew something terrible was about to happen.

"It's just so painful … that innocent people lost their lives and we still don't know why or what the reason is," she said.

• • •

USF said three of the men in the Sonata were students, and the fourth was a former student. But the university did not say who among the four was the former student.

USF offered counseling for any student or staff member touched by the tragedy.

"Mere words cannot convey the depth of shock and sadness this terrible event brings to all who knew and cherished these wonderful young men," USF president Judy Genshaft said in a statement. "Our hearts are heavy at the loss of such bright, energetic and optimistic young people who had promising futures ahead of them; to have their lives cut tragically short betrays our sense of fairness and security."

Word of the tragic crash spread around campus Sunday.

Rikesh Patel, 20, called Yesudhas "my best friend."

"He was always there for you," he said. When Patel went through a bad breakup recently, Yesudhas was there with comfort and advice, he said.

"He was always smiling," he said. "He never had a beef with anybody."

Patel, a member of another primarily South Asian fraternity, Delta Epsilon Psi, said he had texted Yesudhas just Tuesday to say he was going to a fraternity talent show benefit in Georgia and ask would Yesudhas come along.

Patel said he got a call Sunday morning from a mutual friend who told him a car accident had claimed the lives of four Sigma Beta Rho brothers. As the friend said the first three names, Patel said he thought, "Not Dammie."

Then he heard his friend's name.

"I just cried on the phone," he said. "I can't believe he's gone."

• • •

The I-275 fatal crash was the first of three in Hillsborough early Sunday.

At 3:13 a.m., Joel Baxter Cooper, 24, was speeding south on a Yamaha motorcycle on Dale Mabry Highway in the center lane when he ran a red light and hit a Hyundai Sonata driven by Michele Lopez, 21, who was traveling west on Fletcher Avenue, the FHP said.

The motorcycle crashed into a concrete wall and a tree, the FHP said. Cooper, who was wearing a helmet, died at the scene.

At 4:30 a.m., two people were killed in an accident at Bloomingdale and Kings avenues in Brandon. A car was speeding east on Bloomingdale when its driver lost control, striking a power pole, according to Hillsborough sheriff's officials. The crash broke the pole and cut the car in half, according to investigators.

The car continued east in two pieces. Both the driver and passenger died. No names have been released pending notification of next of kin.

Times researcher John Martin and staff writer Lisa Buie contributed to this story. William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected]

   
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