PLANT CITY — A half dozen Bloomingdale High School students huddled around the tree where Nicholas Marcotrigiano died in a double-fatal crash Monday morning.
They tried to brush back the tall weeds. They hung balloons, flowers and personal notes to him scribbled on poster board.
Marcotrigiano's girlfriend, Kaetlynn Palenske, laid a small wicker basket under the tree. In it was a teddy bear and a framed photo of them. She attached a note.
"Nick, this not at all close to the way I imagined I would say goodbye to you," the note read. "You told me you will love me for as long as you live and you did just that."
At 12:09 a.m. Monday, Marcotrigiano's 1996 Ford Ranger collided with a 1999 Jeep Cherokee driven by 15-year-old Haley Weatherly.
Weatherly and Marcotrigiano died at the scene, four highway lanes and a median between them.
They were friends at Bloomingdale High. She was an energetic blue-eyed girl, the joy of her mother's heart. He was the fun-loving son of a Tampa police captain, a twin who played football and talked about pursuing auto mechanics or joining the Navy.
While family and friends tried to make sense of the deaths, two other Valrico teens were being treated for injuries at Tampa General Hospital.
Marcotrigiano's passenger, Brandon L. Simonds, 17, a Bloomingdale sophomore last year, was in critical condition Monday. Weatherley's passenger, Amelia "Amy" Lee Gold, 16, a Bloomingdale junior, suffered serious injuries.
Friends say Weatherly started hanging out with Marcotrigiano's friends a few months ago. Simonds and Gold were two of her closest, friends say.
But no one could say exactly what happened on that darkened stretch of highway that caused the crash. Friends said they'd been hanging out earlier in the evening at their standard hangout: McDonald's on Bloomingdale Avenue and Bell Shoals Road.
Florida Highway Patrol Sgt. Steve Gaskins said the Jeep and Ford were side by side, traveling east on State Road 60 when for unknown reasons the cars made contact.
The Ford Ranger veered south and struck a tree. The Jeep sped north, leaving deep muddy tracks in the grassy median as it plowed into a wooden fence, overturned and slammed into a tree.
The top of the Jeep tore off and Weatherly was ejected. None of the teens were wearing seat belts, according to the Highway Patrol's report.
Gaskins said speed appeared to be a factor, but it was too early to say exactly how fast the cars were traveling in the 55 mph zone. They were awaiting toxicology results.
Weatherly, who was operating Gold's Jeep, had a learner's permit she obtained in February, records show. Gaskins said the permit requires she have a licensed driver 21 years or older sitting in the passenger seat.
Marcotrigiano obtained his license in February 2006. Records show he was cited in January for driving 72 mph in a 45 mph zone. In July, he was cited again, accused of failing to obey a traffic sign.
Friends gathered at the scene of the crash throughout the afternoon.
Shannon Shaw, 18, walked with friends around the south side of the highway. He and Marcotrigiano played football together for the Pinecrest Pilots youth league.
On his walk through the broken branches and brush, he saw pieces of his friend's car. He grabbed the lost Ford insignia. Maybe, he said later, he'd mount it with Marcotrigiano's old football jersey and make a memorial.
Bailey Post of Venice remembered her friend Weatherly from their days together at Venice Middle School. Weatherly was always outgoing and fun. She kept a pet flying squirrel, liked catching tadpoles and skim boarding across ditches, Post said.
The only child raised by a single mom, Weatherly was tight with her mother, Post said. She would join the mother-daughter team on girls' nights, grabbing dinner or renting movies.
Members of both Marcotrigiano and Weatherly families declined comment Monday.
Marcotrigiano's girlfriend, Palenske, 17, said she was at his house until 10:45 p.m. Sunday.
"I was getting ready to leave so he walked me out to my car," she recalled as the tears began to come. "And that's all I have left of him."
Times researcher John Martin and staff writers Kathleen Flynn and Saundra Amrhein contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3383.