BROOKSVILLE — It was about 4:30 p.m. Sunday, during an afternoon of birthday festivities, when Jessica Oras jumped on a four-wheeler and called to her friend Rachel Gernaat to hop on back.
Oras, 23, skirted the edge of Whitehurst Pond, northwest of Brooksville, then told Gernaat she was going to go faster.
"I just had a bad feeling," Gernaat recalled Monday afternoon.
Soon afterward, the pair hit a bump, and both women were thrown from the vehicle.
What started out as a fun-filled celebration for Gernaat, who turned 19 Sunday, ended in tragedy. Oras succumbed to serious injuries and died at the scene.
Friends and family members remembered Oras as a loving, outgoing and beautiful young woman, a gentle soul who put the needs of others before her own. A Tampa Bay native who graduated from Tarpon Springs High School, she loved kids and spent a couple of years working at a day care.
"I miss her," Gernaat said. "She's my best friend, and she's not there anymore."
The two had been roommates for about a year in Hudson, but friends much longer. They saw each other as sisters.
Gernaat recalled the little things about Oras: her dislike for hand sanitizer, her inability to cook, overspicing food, forgetting ingredients — sometimes accidentally setting things on fire.
"She burned a lot of food," she said.
Gernaat said Oras was a hard worker and spent a lot of time as a server at an Applebee's in Hudson. When she wasn't doing that, she divided her time between friends and family, going to movies, the beach and parties. She enjoyed mudding and four-wheeling, though she didn't own a vehicle herself.
"She definitely put everyone at ease," Gernaat said.
She blew people away with her big brown eyes — "big, voluptuous eyes," Gernaat said — and her bright smile.
Ryan Oras, a close cousin of Oras who lives in Hudson, called her a "big sister" and said she brought life and a smile everywhere she went.
"She was always there for me," he said.
Megan Lisco, 22, a longtime friend, remembered how Oras would come over in the morning and stay all day to help with her kids.
"She taught my youngest how to say 'more' in sign language," she said. "She had such a big heart."
Ty Lisco, who dated Oras for about four years, called her the nicest, sweetest person he had ever met. When he was in a crash on a scooter just after last Christmas, Oras was one of the first people to show up to check on him.
Lisco said Oras was cautious and didn't want people to make assumptions about how Sunday's wreck happened.
He said she was driving a powerful four-wheeler — something she wasn't used to.
The incident was on private property marked with "no trespassing" signs, according to the Hernando County Sheriff's Office. Spokeswoman Denise Moloney said the area is a well-known four-wheeling spot that has been the subject of numerous complaints.
Deputies said the group arrived about 11 a.m. Plans called for a day of four-wheeling in the sand and mud. Most of the people on the property had been drinking beer, according to the sheriff's office.
Moloney said Oras had been drinking, but could not say how much or whether alcohol was a factor in the crash.
The Medical Examiner's Office is conducting an autopsy. A preliminary investigation revealed no signs of foul play, the Sheriff's Office said.
Danny Valentine can be reached [email protected] or (352) 848-1432. On Twitter: @HernandoTimes.