For months, Jeremy Story had planned a cross-country bicycle trek to raise money and awareness of affordable housing issues for the needy.
The ride of about 4,100 miles started May 26 in Charleston, S.C. Story, of Evans, and 32 other riders had reached Rainsville, Ala., on Monday afternoon when tragedy cut it short.
Today, Story abandoned his bike for a jet to Boston to escort home the body of his friend and trip co-leader Christina Genco.
Struck by an SUV, Genco, 22, died on Alabama State Route 35 on her way to Scottsboro, Ala. Story was the first to reach her after she was struck.
While riding up a steep hill, Story said he pulled away from Genco. Once he reached the top, Story said he stopped to wait on Genco so they could ride the downhill stretch together.
Then, Story said he heard a "thud" that sounded like a tire blowout. He turned to see a white SUV with a large dent in the passenger-side fender, but not Genco.
"It didn't immediately dawn on me exactly what had happened," Story said. "I looked back again ... and I darted down the hill on my bike. I got about 20 feet away from her and threw my bike down.
"Her bike and her helmet were scattered everywhere. She was lying in the grass by the shoulder of the road and that was it. I looked for any signs of life, but there weren't any."
Alabama authorities say Rainsville resident Craig Chandler hit Genco from behind. Neither Rainsville police nor Alabama state troopers would comment Wednesday on whether Chandler will be charged in Genco's death.
A wake Sunday precedes funeral services for Genco on Monday, Story said.
A bus chartered by Bike and Build Inc., the nonprofit group that organized the trip, will ferry the remaining cyclists from Genco's group to Boston this week and return them to Scottsboro after the funeral to resume the bike ride Wednesday.
"Christina worked so hard to make this trip happen that I don't think I can not do it," Story said. "I know she would want me to do it. I know if I don't do it I'll look back and regret it for the rest of my life."
Once the trip resumes, each rider intends to wear a bracelet to honor Genco's memory.
"We will be arriving in Santa Cruz (Calif.) at the Pacific Ocean (Aug. 11) on what would have been Christina's 23rd birthday," Story said. "We'll definitely do something special for Christina and her family once we get there."
Story, a Greenbrier High School and Augusta State University graduate, said he first met Genco on a conference call with Bike and Build to plan the trip. They met face-to-face in March during a troop leadership retreat and immediately struck up a friendship.
"We had complementary personalities," he said. "We liked to laugh about things and make jokes.
"We understood that what we were doing was serious, but at the same time ... you understand that things can go wrong along the way and you just have to laugh about it and move on."
In a blog Story wrote to chronicle his experiences on the journey, he often mentioned Genco. He related such stories about how they won a chicken fight contest at Lake Hartwell and that they hid the bikes of other riders to teach them a lesson on properly securing them.
Genco was on her second Bike and Build trip and Story said she loved helping build and repair affordable houses for the needy at various stops along the route. He said he admired her generosity.
"She loved to live life," Story said. "She didn't just talk about doing things. She actually went out and did them."