By Christopher Brooks
Many students on Rider’s campus are still grieving the loss of Eliseo Diaz, the senior who died shortly before his graduation this past May. One of them is Joseph Porcelli, president of Tau Kappa Epsilon (TKE), where Diaz once belonged.
On a night in late April, Porcelli was getting ready to leave a friend’s house during a gathering that Diaz was also attending. Porcelli missed a chance to talk to Diaz. Little did he know, that was his last opportunity.
“I was tired because I had just got done at the gym, so I said, ‘I’ll see him soon, it’s no big deal,’” Porcelli said. “I never did get to see him again.”
A week later, during the early hours of May 3, Diaz was killed when his black Honda Accord struck a school bus leaving the south entrance of Rider’s campus. According to the accident report filed by the Lawrence Township Police Department, he was not wearing a seatbelt and had no headlights on when he collided with the bus. There were no skid marks at the scene of the accident and Diaz’s speedometer was stuck at 60 mph.
No one else was injured, but Diaz was pronounced dead at the scene, police said.The Mercer County Medical Examiner’s toxicology report on 22-year-old Diaz showed that he was above New Jersey’s legal blood alcohol content (BAC) limit of 0.08 and also tested positive for marijuana.
Diaz, of Union City, N.J., was a senior accounting major, and was only 13 days away from becoming the first member of his immediate family to graduate from college, according to Porcelli.
“He was going to graduate here with a 3.4 GPA, and already had a job lined up at an accounting firm,” Porcelli said. “To this day I’m still not over it. Sometimes I still start breaking down. Why did it have to happen to him? He had so much going for him and it all went away.”
Diaz was a member of TKE from Fall 2011 until October 2013, where according to Porcelli, he had many strong relationships with fellow fraternity members. Diaz disaffiliated from TKE for personal reasons, but still had a strong bond with the members.
“One of the things about Eliseo is that there was never a moment in his life when he was serious,” Porcelli said. “I’ve never had a conversation with Eliseo where I wasn’t smiling, laughing and overall having a great time. He is the person who stood behind me to be the president of TKE. Eliseo and I always had a great relationship and he had a great relationship with all of the frat. There was no bad blood when he left. Everyone understood why he left.”
The night of May 13, TKE hosted a candlelight vigil for Diaz on campus with a large gathering of students, family and friends. During the vigil, TKE was able to raise over $3,000 in support of Diaz’s family.
Graduate student and resident director Jennifer Lopez had a close relationship with Diaz. Though the two were not blood-related, they were basically family.
“We go back to when we were little kids,” she said. “He is a close family friend and we grew up together. When he came to college and I was already here we would introduce each other as cousins.”
Like Porcelli, Lopez will always remember Diaz as a jokester who never failed to make people smile.
“His first year I was an RA in the building he was living in,” she said. “I remember this one time on Halloween he had this mask and he was running down the halls trying to scare people. He was surprised when I knew it was him.”
Diaz is survived by his mother and younger sister, and the three of them, Lopez said, were very close. Diaz’s mother accepted his diploma on May 16 during Rider’s undergraduate commencement ceremonies. Though Lopez could not attend the ceremony, she was watching it on television.
“It really hit home,” Lopez said. “It was a really emotional situation, but it was great to see all of the support.”
Months after the accident, what went on during the night of May 3 remains a mystery to those who knew Diaz well. According to Lopez, Diaz was out with some friends who dropped him off at Rider. For unknown reasons, Diaz left campus later that night, and collided with the school bus on his apparent return at 2:15 a.m.
“I go back to that day and reconstruct it in my mind and wonder what happened,” Porcelli said. “I don’t have an answer and it frustrates me. I always knew him as a careful driver and I always used to rag on him for driving slow. It’s 30 minutes of his life that nobody will ever have an answer to.”
The mix of alcohol and marijuana in his system was likely significant, though it is unknown if the THC (the active ingredient in marijuana) was residual or indicated that he consumed pot the night of the accident. According to the University of Washington Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute (ADAI), combining the two substances can be very dangerous.
Having alcohol in the bloodstream increases the rate at which a person absorbs THC, causing more enhanced symptoms. The ADAI says that the combination of marijuana and alcohol can produce unpredictable effects including nausea, paranoia and panic.
Susan Stahley, prevention education coordinator for alcohol, drug and sexual assault prevention at Rider, wants to stress that students can learn from this tragedy.
“The death of a student is heartbreaking for the family and for our community,” she said. “From something so tragic, however, I hope we are reminded of the need to be mindful of our own health and safety. Rider University has many programs and resources designed to assist students and keep them safe.
“The staff at Rider’s Student Health Center is available to speak with any student who has a concern regarding their personal use of alcohol and/or drugs, and the Counseling Center staff is available to speak with any student impacted by this event. It is important to look out for each other and to take action when we see another member of our community in a dangerous or difficult situation.”
Porcelli and TKE share the same ideas and hope to remember Diaz by not letting another student make the same mistake.
“One of the things that we promote is a no drinking and driving policy,” Porcelli said. “Violations used to be a monetary fine or social probation, but one of the things I’ve done is, you get one time, and if it happens again you become disaffiliated with the fraternity. I have a zero-tolerance policy on drinking and driving.”
In remembrance of Diaz, TKE will be creating two scholarships in his name to be given to recipients who write essays on why they deserve the scholarship and how they will help give back to their community.
“One of the things I promised to my chapter last semester was that we would have a scholarship fund and we would always remember Eliseo through that,” Porcelli said.
By Christopher Brooks