In the photo taken at the Argentine airport Saturday, the eight men are smiling, their arms looped over each other's shoulders in easy camaraderie. Friends since high school, they were embarking on a long-planned trip to New York to join two other pals and celebrate the 30 years since their graduation. They wore matching white T-shirts emblazoned with the Spanish word "LIBRE," a joke that they would have a few days of freedom from their wives and workaday responsibilities.
On Thursday, some of those wives and other relatives began arriving in New York, too – for the grim task of formally identifying loved ones and reclaiming their bodies. Five of the friends, along with three other people, were killed Tuesday when a man drove a rental truck down a busy Manhattan bike path just after 3 p.m., leaving a trail of mangled bicycles and bodies. The suspect, identified as Uzbek nationalist Sayfullo Saipov, was hospitalized after being shot in the stomach by a police officer.
The 10 Argentine friends had been cycling through New York's Central Park and then made a fateful decision to go south on the path near the Hudson River, said Cecilia Piedrabuena, whose husband Ariel Benvento was injured and hospitalized.
"They were pedaling in lines of two, chatting, laughing, enjoying the ride. My husband was the last one in the line, when he felt a speeding car, and then the truck that zoomed by," Piedrabuena told an Argentine radio station, according to the Associated Press. "The truck took away his friends, and he saw them all scattered on the ground.''
Relatives of the five slain Argentines – Diego Enrique Angelini, Ariel Erlij, Hernan Ferruchi, Hernan Diego Mendoza and Alejandro Pagnucco – were to be received by the Argentine consul in New York, according to Argentina's Clarín news organization.
Along with Benvenuto, the surviving friends include: Iván Brajkovic and Juan Pablo Trevisan, both of Argentina; Guillermo Banchini of New York; and Martín Marro of Massachusetts. Marro also was injured and hospitalized.
Erlij, CEO of the Argentine steel products manufacturing firm Ivanar, had organized the trip and had helped finance travel for friends of lesser means, according to news reports. Though he was at the airport for the photo on Saturday, he flew out a day later.
"They were 10 high school friends. They always met. It's terrible what happened," said Benvenuto's wife, Piedrabuena. "… They left the airport happy."
Argentina's vice consul in New York, Eduardo Almirantearena, said the chancellery and the U.S. State Department had collaborated to speed up visa processing for the relatives, Clarín reported. He did not identify the families, to preserve their privacy.
Almirantearena also said the Argentine consulate was working to repatriate the bodies to Argentina as soon as possible, predicting it would happen "before Monday." He acknowledged possible complications because the attack is being investigated as an act of terrorism.
The men were 1987 graduates of Higher Polytechnic Institute General San Martín in Rosario, Argentina's third-largest city, located roughly 175 miles or almost 300 kilometers northwest of Buenos Aires. It's also the hometown of soccer star Lionel Messi and revolutionary Che Guevara, as the Associated Press observed.
On Wednesday, the high school flew the blue-and-white Argentine flag at half staff. Last evening, thousands gathered at the school for a candlelight vigil honoring the victims.
"The groups of friends that are built in this community, in this school, are friends for life," one mourner said, according to the Argentine news organization ARTEAR.
"In this pain, you never understand that life is very short, sadly – that a group of friends has reunited," another added. "Then this happened in another part of the world."