TAMPA — As he drove home on Interstate 275 early Sunday, Ryan Butler nearly collided with the white SUV speeding down the highway against the flow of traffic. He swerved, and so did other drivers, but the SUV didn't veer off its course.
"It just kept going," said Butler, 30, of Tampa. "There were no brake lights, there was no nothing."
Moments later, Butler saw an eruption of flames in his rear-view mirror. Just north of the Busch Boulevard exit, the southbound SUV collided with a Hyundai Sonata carrying four people: Dammie Yesudhas, 21; Jobin Kuriakose, 21; Imtiyaz Jim Ilias, 20; and Ankeet Patel, 22.
All four men died, along with the SUV's driver.
The SUV burst into flames and the driver's body was burned beyond recognition, Florida Highway Patrol Sgt. Steve Gaskins said. Identification is expected to take days, and it may never be clear where or why the driver entered the interstate driving south in the wrong direction, he said.
The four men in the northbound Hyundai were members of Sigma Beta Rho fraternity at the University of South Florida. By Sunday evening, the fraternity's national president had established a GoFundMe page to help all four families with funeral expenses. Mohsin Hussain, who lives near Orlando, said he set the goal at $40,000 because he wasn't sure what sort of response to expect.
The page reached that goal within 15 hours. By 6 p.m. Monday, the total was more than $63,000. In an odd twist, Hussain says a graphic video of the crash scene posted by a witness helped people find the donation site.
"I guess it would be safe to say the link went viral, just as the video did," Hussain said.
The proceeds will be split between families, Hussain said.
Ankeet Patel's sister, Krupa Patel, said she was astounded by the outpouring of support from the members who set up the page.
"God give them everything," she said. "Give them everything that they desire, because that's amazing what they've accomplished in less than 24 hours."
Patel, 28, remembers her brother, who hoped to become a businessman, as the type of person who could light up a room. He joined Sigma Beta Rho last fall and the fraternity meant the world to him, she said.
He talked about his brothers so often that Patel's family often teased him about finding his "new family."
The young men were part of a close-knit group, said friend and fraternity alumnus Hardam Tripathi, 23. Tripathi often spent time with them — the last time just a day earlier at St. Petersburg's Get Downtown First Friday event.
They'd often play basketball, pool, darts, video games and ride bicycles.
On Sunday morning, the four men were on their way back from the Kennedy, a Tampa bar, Tripathi said. Two other friends were nearby, traveling home in a different vehicle.
"It's devastating," he said. "These men had the potential to do great things."
Jobin Kuriakose was studying for the LSAT, hoping to go to Rutgers School of Law. He was the "hype man," an energetic self-starter.
"He was one of my best friends," Tripathi said.
Dammie Yesudhas was analytical and good at math and chess. He was in a long-term relationship and always seemed to know what he wanted in life, Tripathi said. Yesudhas was planning to graduate this semester.
Ankeet Patel and Imtiyaz Jim Ilias — who went by "Jim" — were newer to the fraternity. Tripathi remembered Patel as a calm guy with a great smile. Patel was extremely humble and had so much joy.
"These four guys really were the cream of the crop, and it's really a shame that USF is going to lose them," Tripathi said.
Their fraternity, Sigma Beta Rho, is a multicultural fraternity. Three of the men killed in Sunday's crash are Indian, one Bengali. Two are Christian, one Hindu and one Muslim.
The fraternity brothers celebrated these differences, Tripathi said, and each learned much from each other.
"Really, for me, for all of us, it's a lesson in humility," he said. "It shows us that life's so fragile. It shows us how you can lose something so fast. The things we take for granted should not be taken for granted."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Claire Wiseman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727)-893-8804. Follow her on Twitter @clairelwiseman.