Crash survivor recalls last moments with two U of M teammatesby Elizabeth Dunbar, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — It was supposed to be just a weekend trip home to Milwaukee for Carlos Rios and four of his friends. They didn't even worry much when a rear tire on their car blew out on the interstate early Thursday morning.
While stopped on the median shoulder at about 2:30 a.m., Rios and two of his fellow cheerleading teammates at the University of Minnesota got out and gazed at the stars.
"We were saying how beautiful the stars were, that we can't see that in the city," Rios said Friday from his home in Milwaukee.
Then, as they went to work on the flat tire, a car driven by a suspected drunken driver swerved onto the shoulder, hitting them. Rios' two friends who were working on the car were killed, and one of the two women inside the car also died.
The Wisconsin State Patrol identified the three who died as Marcus Johnson, 19, of Milwaukee; Wilfredo Ugarte, 23, of Puerto Rico and Elysia Rapp, 20, of Milwaukee. Rios said Johnson and Ugarte were his U of M cheerleading teammates, and Rapp was Johnson's girlfriend.
Just after the crash, Rios, who was not hit, remembered looking over at a horrific sight: Johnson was on the hood of the other car and blood was everywhere.
He went to the car to try to help those trapped inside -- Rapp and the other friend, whose last name Rios could not remember. Rapp handed Rios a puppy she had been holding, but Rios said she did not respond when he tried to talk to her. The other friend was not seriously injured.
A couple of truck drivers had stopped, and Rios said one of them covered Johnson's body. That's when Rios said he realized "this was happening for real."
Rios, 20, said he was later told by paramedics that Ugarte and Johnson were dead, and that they were not able to revive Rapp.
The 31-year-old driver of the Acura Coupe that hit them was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving. He was in the Dane County jail in Madison, Wis., awaiting formal charges.
The Wisconsin State Patrol said the crash remained under investigation, and charges weren't expected until next week.
Rios said he and Johnson joined the U Spirit Squad this fall and were transferrring to the University of Minnesota from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Ugarte had arrived in Minnesota from Puerto Rico in September to join the team and attend the university.
University of Minnesota spokesman Daniel Wolter said Johnson had recently made the Spirit Squad and planned to enroll in the university in January. Ugarte was still a cheerleading recruit and was trying to make the Spirit Squad. He hadn't yet enrolled but planned to after making the team.
Rapp was a first-year interior design student at Century College in White Bear Lake. College spokeswoman Nancy Livingston said professors there reported she was an enthusiastic design student who always showed up for class.
Ugarte's younger sister, Mariela, who flew to Milwaukee to stay with Rios as soon as she heard about the crash, said her brother often talked about his dream to be the first Puerto Rican to both be on the cheerleading team at a Big Ten school and finish an undergraduate degree there.
"He really loved the team and loved the people on the team," Mariela Ugarte said.
Every year, she and her brother traveled to Milwaukee where they both attended a cheerleading camp. They met Rios there about a year and a half ago, she said.
Rios said he'll remember many fun moments with Ugarte and Johnson. They all loved to "goof-off" together, using helium balloons to make their voices sound funny or dressing up in costumes and wigs, he said.
"Even until the last second, they were always enjoying life," Rios said. "There was never a dull moment with any of us."
Johnson hoped to study film, and Ugarte was always striving to be a better student and cheerleader, Rios said.
University of Minnesota officials said grief counselors met with the Spirit Squad Thursday evening, and there was a moment of silence for Ugarte and Johnson at Friday's Board of Regents meeting.
"Both of these individuals were very much a part of our spirit squad -- and our community," Wolter said in a written statement. "Their loss is truly painful for all of those who knew them, including the cheerleaders who spent time with them training and working to make the team.
"The entire University of Minnesota community feels this loss and once again extends our thoughts and prayers to the family and friends of these bright and talented young people."