In a solemn trip home, the bodies of a group of former classmates killed in a terrorist attack on a riverfront bike path in New York City were escorted early Monday to this port city where they grew up, formed lasting friendships and spent years planning what was to be a celebratory trip to America.
As four hearses carrying the bodies of Hernan Mendoza, Diego Angelini, Alejandro Pagnucco and Hernan Ferruchi pulled toward a funeral home in Rosario, friends and family members stood to meet the procession. The body of a fifth victim, Ariel Erlij, was taken to Perez, a nearby suburb.
Attesting to the shared pain in this city of 1.4 million, city officials observed three days of mourning while the high school where the five cemented their friendships observed a full week of reflection.
Pablo Farias, a minister in the Santa Fe provincial government, paid tribute to the victims in a statement at the funeral home, saying he was there to accompany the victims in their “final moment and to share the feelings of pain that something so unjust has happened.”
In addition to the five classmates, three other people were killed Oct. 31 when a 29-year-old man drove a rented truck onto a bike path running alongside the Hudson River and rammed into bikers, pedestrians and ultimately a school bus. Sayfullo Saipov, an immigrant from Uzbekistan, is being held on federal terrorism charges.
The bodies of the high school pals arrived in Buenos Aires early Monday and then were flown to their hometown, about 175 miles to the northwest. In Rosario, the procession was escorted by 30 police officers, and mourners stood on the roadside as the caravan passed by.
Family members of the victims who had gone to New York to identify the bodies were met at the airport by Rosario Mayor Monica Fein and other government officials. Individual funeral masses are to be held Tuesday for each victim. Maria Julia Reyna, a spokeswoman for the Santa Fe government, told reporters that U.S. officials helped expedite the return of the bodies by reducing red tape.
Ivan Brajkovic, one of the classmates who survived the attack, accompanied the caskets to Argentina. Three others, Ariel Benvenuto, Juan Pablo Trevisan and Guillermo Banchini, returned separately. The final member of the group, Martin Marro, who lives in Boston and came to New York to join the reunion, is hospitalized in New York.
The victims had scheduled a week of sightseeing and cultural activities in New York to celebrate three decades of friendship.
Meanwhile in New York, Argentine President Mauricio Macri, who had previously scheduled a visit to the city on government business, led a ceremony Monday at the scene of the bike path attack. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio also attended.
“We want to be part of this battle that we all face so that everyone can live in peace. Terrorism doesn’t respect limits or nationalities,” Macri said at the ceremony in which he and his wife, Juliana, left flowers. “Five families have been left destroyed by this deed. But this has brought us together to underscore our commitment to peace.”
On Friday at Argentina’s consulate in New York, Brajkovic, Benvenuto, Trevisan and Banchini gathered to express their thanks for the support they said they’d received from around the world. Together, they took turns reading a statement remembering their classmates.
“If there is a place where we would rather not be and a text we would rather not read, it’s this one,” Banchini said. “There is no way to understand how these lives were snatched away and that a dream turned into a nightmare. It hurts as nothing has ever hurt.”
Special correspondents D’Alessandro and Kraul reported from Rosario and Bogota, Colombia, respectively.