“Living along the shores of the Suwannee River in rural North Florida provides few opportunities to find a good job. Many locals work at the nearby prisons. There's a cement plant, a poultry farm and other jobs -- many that hold little appeal and not much chance to get ahead.
So when they got a chance to learn valuable construction skills, five young men from around Branford, a community of 750 people, jumped at the opportunity.
The close friends worked hard, traveling around the state building log-cabin homes for a Gainesville contractor. Their latest job was in south Lake County -- where all five died together Tuesday when their vehicle slammed head-on into an oncoming dump truck on County Road 474 in the Green Swamp south of Clermont
The accident has gripped Branford and surrounding areas, where many residents are mourning the loss. "They'll be missed -- they were young kids, and we all watched them grow up here," said Scott Alred, a family friend and captain with Branford's Fire Department, where two of the victims had volunteered.
All five men were riding in a 1996 Nissan Maxima that was heading west, passing slower vehicles on the two-lane road, when it crashed into the eastbound dump truck and burst into flames, according to the Florida Highway Patrol
Shawn Bower, 23, Ronald Conine, 20, Jason Green, 25, Donald Kelly, 19, and Jerry West, 20, died at the scene. The Maxima was registered to Green. The mangled vehicle was taken to the Medical Examiner's Office in Leesburg, where the bodies were to be identified.
News of the crash did not take long to spread throughout Branford on Tuesday night. Information was shared at a Town Council meeting. "It's a shock," council President Joe Cannon said Wednesday. "The biggest thing we can do is remember them in our prayers."
Some of the victims' families gathered at their homes Tuesday to share their grief. Relatives headed to Kissimmee on Wednesday to retrieve belongings from where the men had stayed at a hotel on U.S. Highway 192. Friends are providing support -- Alred was at Town Hall on Wednesday to help with preliminary arrangements for one of the families. "We're such a small community that for five people to leave us, it hits hard," he said.
Conine attended nearby Bell High School. The others attended Branford High School. They were close friends who shared much of their lives together. They enjoyed hunting and paintball, friends said. Green has a 2-year-old son with one of West's sisters, family members said. Kelly was dating another sister, and Conine was seeing a stepsister. West and his girlfriend are expecting a child, friends said. The group of men threw him a party last weekend to celebrate his 20th birthday.”
One of them started work about a year and a half ago with Gainesville contractor Randy Cameron, who said he soon employed another. Two more started work six months ago, and Bower was hired only recently. The men were part of an eight-member team that traveled around building log cabins. Cameron said he was working to teach them building skills -- he encouraged them to take advantage of the job experience, and they were eager to learn.
"They were together all the time," said Kelly's sister Jenifer Kelly, 22. She said her brother wanted to get the most from his work: "He loved the job."
November 16, 2006
The United States is one of the most diverse countries on earth, jam packed full of amazing sights from St. Patrick's cathedral in New York to Mount Hollywood California.The Northeast region is where it all started. Thirteen British colonies fought the American Revolution from here and won their independence in the first successful colonial rebellion in history. Take a look at these rolling hills carpeted with foliage along the Hudson river here, north of New York City.The American south is known for its polite people and slow pace of life. Probably they move slowly because it's so hot. Southerners tend not to trust people from "up north" because they talk too fast. Here's a cemetery in Georgia where you can find graves of soldiers from the Civil War.The West Coast is sort of like another country that exists to make the east coast jealous. California is full of nothing but grizzly old miners digging for gold, a few gangster rappers, and then actors. That is to say, the West Coast functions as the imagination of the US, like a weird little brother who teases everybody then gets famous for making freaky art.The central part of the country is flat farmland all the way over to the Rocky Mountains. Up in the northwest corner you can find creative people in places like Portland and Seattle, along with awesome snowboarding and good beer. Text by Steve Smith.