BUSHNELL — It had been a good day.
As the sun started to set Saturday, Billy Barker and Johnny Holmes began saying their good-byes. The two had spent most of the afternoon at a weekend pig roast in the company of about 80 friends, many of whom hadn't seen each other in more than 20 years.
Murray Rush, who knew Barker and Holmes as youngsters growing up around Clearwater, recalled the years when they were always hanging around together. Now, he said, they only see each other at funerals.
"We need to start doing this more often," Rush recalls saying.
The buddies agreed, and they and their girlfriends climbed onto their black Harley-Davidson motorcycles and roared off.
Minutes later, Barker and Holmes lay dead on a remote stretch of County Road 476 outside of Bushnell in Sumter County.
A westbound GMC pickup driven by Paul Sermons, 45, of Bushnell had plowed head-on into the two bikes, according to the Florida Highway Patrol. Sermons, driving with a suspended license, told the FHP that he was trying to pass another truck when he hit the two motorcycles.
Barker, 54, of Stuart, his passenger Patrice Poole, 55, of Mount Dora and Holmes, 55, of Beverly Hills died at the scene. Patricia Beihayn, 52, of the Citrus County town of Hernando was pronounced dead a short while later at an area hospital.
A shaken Rush recalled when he and his buddies Barker and Holmes, all Largo High School graduates, would party with friends on weekends on the Bellair Causeway, Sand Key and other spots.
Many of the friends worked in the construction industry and saw each other frequently. But the occasional gatherings were always special, Rush said. It allowed them all to keep track of each other.
"It wasn't a regular thing, but it seemed that whenever we got together it was pretty much the same people," Rush said. "You'd see someone one time and he might have a girlfriend. The next time he'd have a new one. We kept it up for probably 20 years."
Their last big gathering was in 1988, on a vacant parcel behind the St. Petersburg-Clearwater Airport. More than 200 people showed up for that party.
And then, the gatherings stopped.
"It got to be that people were just too spread out," Rush said. "We were all getting older, having families, being adults."
More than a year ago, Rush and Paul Poole, who hosted the pig roast, began planning Saturday's gathering, known as the 21 Year Salute. E-mails went out. People exchanged cell phone numbers. And though Rush hadn't seen Barker and Holmes in several years, he was excited to hear they were coming as well.
"It really was like old times when I saw those guys."
Poole said news of the tragic accident didn't reach the gathering until the next morning. Many of the partiers had camped overnight on his 5-acre property, and they spent the morning in somber silence. Others cried.
"You just never imagine something like this happening," Poole said Monday. "Billy and Johnny were like brothers to a lot of people that were here. It's left a huge hole in all of us."
Poole noted that neither Barker nor Holmes had more than a couple of beers at the pig roast. Both were experienced motorcycle riders.
Rush, who has ridden motorcycles all his life, says he has tried his best to remain objective when it comes to casting blame for the accident. He maintains that there needs to be more focus on making roads safer for motorcyclists.
"A lot of people just don't pay enough attention while they're driving. They aren't looking out for bikers," he said. "It's a sad ending. These were good, hard-working people who were just out riding and enjoying life."
Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or 848-1435.