ST. PETERSBURG — James Stephen Easton Jr. spent the first and final day as a 34-year-old playing volleyball and joking with friends along St. Petersburg Beach.
When his sister, Tia Williams, left work Tuesday, her brother had called and said, "Come celebrate with me." She met with him and his sunburned friends for Easton's birthday at the Undertow Beach Bar.
About 6:30 p.m., they drove their separate ways.
Two hours later Easton was driving north on I-275 at what the Florida Highway Patrol called a "high rate of speed" when he lost control of his Jeep Cherokee while exiting onto 31st Street S.
He slammed into the center guardrail. The Jeep rolled over. Easton and his friend, 28-year-old Ken Hirofumi Ono, were thrown out of the car.
Both were taken to Bayfront Medical Center. Ono was in serious condition Wednesday.
Easton, born and raised in Gibsonton, was pronounced dead Tuesday.
Loved ones remembered Easton as a jokester who enjoyed water sports and was close to family.
"He was 6 foot 1, about 230, 240 pounds," said his father, James Easton. "And his heart was bigger than he was."
While the younger Easton was at the beach Tuesday, his father called to wish him a happy birthday. "He told me he loved me twice."
As always, before hanging up, the father told his son to be careful on the road. "Always," the 34-year-old replied.
Before midnight, two Florida Highway Patrol troopers knocked on the father's front door.
"It's one of those that you just know," he said, his voice shaky. "He's my only son. It's kind of a fog now. I only have one son and one daughter."
The younger Easton enjoyed the water and family. He and his older sister, Tia, grew up playing at Bullfrog Creek near their Gibsonton home. Easton often went boating with his dad and enjoyed jetskiing and knee-boarding.
On Wednesday, Easton's jet ski was parked in the back yard of his father's home.
The father and son also previously owned a construction business, where they specialized in building docks and sea walls. "At least I got to see him every day for 10 years," his father said.
More recently, Easton worked as a bartender, and then a manager, at O'Toole's Irish Bar in Brandon.
About two weeks ago, he had started another bartending gig at Splitsville on Channelside Drive.
Williams, a 36-year-old mother to 4- and 10-year-old girls, said her brother was close to his nieces. "He loved to spoil them," she said. He had recently splurged and bought $40 worth of sweets for them at a candy store and taken his eldest niece to a Rays game.
The Florida Highway Patrol is investigating the crash. Easton, who lived in Riverview, and his friend were not wearing seat belts Tuesday night, the patrol said.
For now, James Easton said he's not ready to know what happened to his son.
He has already scribbled his son's obituary on a legal pad.
Laura C. Morel can be reached at (727) 893-8713 or [email protected]