Updated Oct. 10, 3:42 p.m. Eastern
A Marine veteran who served in Iraq was killed on his 34th birthday Saturday when the limousine he was riding in sped through an intersection and into a parked car. He was one of 20 people killed in the horrific accident, according to local reports.
Michael C. Ukaj was with 16 friends in the back of a 2001 Ford Excursion limo about 40 miles outside Albany, New York, when it failed to stop at an intersection, hitting an unoccupied Toyota SUV. All 17 passengers, the driver and two pedestrians near the parked vehicle were killed.
It was the deadliest transportation accident in nearly a decade, The New York Times reported.
Ukaj was the last person to be identified as one of the crash victims. His mother, Mary Ashton, told the Albany Times Union that her son had enlisted in the Marine Corps when he was 17 and had later deployed to Iraq.
He was there on his 21st birthday, she said, when he had to take shelter underneath a table as his base was being mortared, "praying he wouldn't die," the paper reported. He lost some of his friends on that deployment and, though he'd planned to re-enlist, was honorably discharged due to a medical condition, she told the paper.
Ukaj served as a bulk-fuel specialist in the Marine Corps from 2002 to 2007, according to his personnel records. He was deployed to Iraq from August 2005 to February 2006, and left the service at the rank of sergeant.
His last duty assignment was with the California-based Marine Wing Support Squadron 372. Ukaj had two Navy and Marine Corps Achievement medals and a Marine Corps Good Conduct medal.
"We love you and miss you, our dear baby boy!" his mother wrote on Facebook on Monday. "You were such an inspiration when you wanted to join the Marine Corps! Thank you for your combat service, and for being my son. I love you forever. See you in heaven, baby!"
A fundraiser set up to benefit Ukaj's family has raised more than $3,000.
The other limo passengers included several siblings and married couples. They were: Axel Steenburg, Richard Steenburg, Amy Steenburg, Allison King, Mary Dyson, Robert Dyson, Abigail Jackson, Matthew Coons, Savannah Bursese, Patrick Cushing, Amanda Halse, Erin McGowan, Shane McGowan, Amanda Rivenburg, Adam Jackson and Rachael Cavosie.
Scott Lisinicchia was the limousine driver, and the pedestrians killed were Brian Hough and James Schnurr.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he joins all New Yorkers "in mourning these deaths and share in the unspeakable sorrow experienced by their families and loved ones during this extremely difficult time."
After reports of safety issues with the vehicle, Lee Kindlon, a lawyer representing Prestige Limousine, said he does not think those infractions were what led to the tragedy, according to the New York Post. The safety issues with the vehicle, he added, had been addressed and corrected.
Ukaj is survived by his parents, a sister and two brothers, the Times Union reported. Ashton told the paper the Marine veteran was "just a very happy" person who enjoyed life.
-- Gina Harkins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @ginaaharkins.