Like lots of high school students, Zachary McCarthy was active on social media. The 16-year-old Bloomingdale High School student had hundreds of Facebook friends and Twitter followers.
On Thursday morning, his friends used Tweets and Facebook posts to spread word of a tragedy: McCarthy had died in a traffic accident the night before.
By the afternoon, a Facebook page called "RIP Zach McCarthy" had been created, which received more than 2,400 likes. On the page, McCarthy's classmates at Bloomingdale High School wrote how they'll miss and remember him and urged each other to wear black when school resumes Monday.
By evening, hundreds of students had attended either a church service, memorial service or candlelight vigil that had quickly been pulled together in Zachary's honor.
Zachary's father, Doug McCarthy, thanked the community for their support.
"God blessed us with 16 years with a wonderful and loving son," Doug McCarthy wrote on Facebook. "He is home now and singing his heart out in heaven for all to hear. He was a blessing to all who knew him. Your mom, Ben, Grace and I love you and will always have you in our hearts."
Zachary was with his family all day on Wednesday and looking forward to hanging out with friends later that night.
"He and my husband had spent the evening together," said Zachary's mother, Jean McCarthy. "He said they had a great time."
Zachary then left his Valrico home to pick up a friend. The two were going to get ice cream.
On the way, at the intersection of Natures Way and Golf Meadow boulevards, Zachary McCarthy lost control of his 2000 Pontiac Grand Am. The car spun off the road and struck a tree shortly before 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies said.
McCarthy was taken to Tampa General Hospital, where he died. The passenger in the Pontiac, Michaela Faessler, 15, of Valrico, was not hurt.
Flowers, candles and signs for Zachary McCarthy appeared overnight at the tree where his car crashed.
Jean McCarthy said her son was kind-hearted and "shared anything he had."
"He was very funny. He was very giving," she said.
Zachary enjoyed singing and used his talent at school, where he was a member of the chorus, and at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, where he sang during services, his mother said. He also played trumpet in the Bloomingdale band. He didn't have plans for college, she said.
"He wasn't sure what he wanted to do," Jean McCarthy said. "He loved to sing. He was trying to find a way to make that into a career."
Zachary McCarthy is the oldest of three children, his mother said. He has an 11-year-old brother, Ben, and a 7-year-old sister, Grace.
Connor Hickie walked out of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Riverview on Thursday night, emotional and shaken. He hugged several friends who also had attended the memorial prayer service for their friend.
Hickie, 16, a junior at Bloomingdale High, has known McCarthy since sixth grade and they've been close friends ever since. Both were members of the high school marching band, where McCarthy played the trumpet and Hickie the tuba.
Hickie remembered how if he was feeling down at school, McCarthy would notice and ask what was wrong. "He told me everything was going to be OK and I could get through it,'' Hickie said. "He was always understanding.''
They last texted on New Years Eve, wishing each other a happy new year. "I just miss him. I wish he was with us,'' Hickie said.
Voice instructor Miguel Oquendo said McCarthy was a one-of-a-kind teenager who had a passion for life. "His love for everything always came through,'' said Oquendo, 36, of Valrico. "One of the most passionate, amazing kids I've ever met.''
The tragedy has shaken him, he said. "Toughest day I've had in my life,'' said Oquendo, who taught McCarthy voice the last three years. "To hear something like that isn't something you want to hear ever.''
During the memorial prayer service, Pastor Craig Swartz spoke to a packed crowd of about 250. Swartz said he understood that friends and family will dwell on why the tragedy happened. "When times are really hard – and this is a hard one for me – God is there and he cares,'' Swartz said.
Earlier in the evening, St. Stephen Catholic Church in Valrico invited students and friends who knew McCarthy to the church Youth House. An estimated 100 teenagers attended. They spoke to counselors and volunteers and met afterward in the church for prayer.
At 9:30 p.m., authorities shut down the road for an hour near where the crash happened. Hundreds of Zachary's friends circled around the tree and the growing memorial. Some sang or hummed hymns or talked about what Zachary meant to them. Mostly, people cried.
The support from friends and relatives helps, Jean McCarthy said.
"It's overwhelming," she said of the well wishes.
McCarthy said her faith has helped keep her strong during a traumatic time.
"I know my son's in heaven right now," she said.