It was a long-anticipated dream vacation for the 10 friends who traveled to New York to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their high school graduation, a reunion of tightknit pals from Argentina.
But the joyous gathering — capped off with a bike ride along a riverfront pathway near the World Trade Center memorial — turned into a nightmare when a suspected terrorist drove onto the crowded bike path, killing eight people and injuring a dozen as he rammed into bikers, pedestrians and finally a school bus.
Five of the high school friends were among the dead.
Ariel Erlij, a 48-year-old father of three who organized and helped finance the trip for his old classmates, was the owner of a steel company. Hernan Ferruchi, 47; Diego Angelini, 47; Hernan Mendoza, 47; and Alejandro Pagnucco, 47, were all architects. All of them still lived near Rosario Polytechnic Institute, the school where they learned their career skills and became lifelong friends.
“All he could talk about were the plans they had, the museums they were going to visit, all the details of the visit he was going to make with his dear classmates,” Mendoza’s brother, Mario, told La Capital, a newspaper in the city of Rosario.
“What should have been a party ended up in madness.”
A of the friends obtained by La Capital captures a happy group riding along the bike path moments before the attack, laughing, waving, flashing the peace sign and mugging for the camera. A breeze off the river ruffles their hair.
“Champions,” one of the riders calls to the person shooting the video. He offers a thumbs-up.
Early Wednesday at the institute, before classes began, students and teachers gathered in a courtyard for a moment of silence. Alicia Oliva, the school’s vice director, slowly read the names of the victims, one by one.
“We embrace all our loved ones in this difficult moment that no one ever should have to live through,” the school said in a statement .
Rosario Mayor Monica Fein declared three days of mourning in the city to honor the victims.
“It seems impossible these Rosarian neighbors celebrating their 30th anniversary of graduation suffered this terrible crime by an unbalanced person in an act of terror of this magnitude,” the mayor said, adding that she was gripped by “profound pain.”
Argentine President Mauricio Macri said in a statement Wednesday that he felt “profound sadness” at the men’s deaths.
“This,” he said later in the day, “has really shocked many Argentines.”
In New York City on Wednesday, passersby and parents pushing children in strollers paused at the cordoned-off bike path to stare at the crumpled rental truck used in the attack.
“I think it’s so sad that New York keeps getting targeted,” said Cassandra Davison, a tourist from Australia who said she left home with a nagging fear something might happen.
The trip to America for the former classmates was partly to reunite with another student from Rosario, Martin Marro, who lives in Boston. Marro had met his friends in New York on Tuesday and joined them on the bike ride. He was among those injured and remained hospitalized Wednesday.
Mateo Estreme, the Argentine consul in New York, said he was handling arrangements to transport the bodies of the five men to Buenos Aires, about 175 miles southeast of Rosario.
Cecilia Piedrabuena, the wife of Ariel Benvenuto, another classmate, told the news media in Rosario that her husband escaped serious harm because he was riding at the rear of the group and was behind where the driver — identified by police as Sayfullo Saipov, a 29-year-old Uzbek immigrant — apparently cut into the bike lane and accelerated into riders.
“They had been looking forward to this trip for a long time,” Piedrabuena said. “I can’t believe it’s ended this way.”
Special correspondent D’Alessandro reported from Buenos Aires, Argentina, special correspondent Chris Kraul contributed from Bogota, Colombia, and special correspondent Matt Hansen contributed from New York.
1:55 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from one of the victim’s brother, a video published in an Argentine newspaper and from a tourist in New York.
This article was originally published at 12:20 p.m.