A group of men in women in suits and dresses waded knee-deep into the waves at Point Lookout on June 6. Alexis Zayas loved the ocean, her mother, Ava Jacobs, said, and in the wake of the June 2 skydiving accident that took her life, her friends and family wanted to be closer to her.
“She’s got my philosophy on life,” Jacobs added. “Human opportunities don’t wait.”
Zayas, 27, of East Meadow, died on June 4, two days after sustaining serious injuries in a parachuting accident in Massachusetts. She had jumped out of a plane operated by Jumptown Skydiving in Orange, Mass., when she “veered off course” and hit a barn, according to the office of the district attorney for the Northwestern District of Hampshire and Franklin counties and the town of Athol, Mass.
“My daughter has been described as a free spirit since she was born,” Jacobs said, recalling a photo taken on Zayas’s first skydiving trip. “I remember the look on her face. It was just the most exuberant, joyous thing,” she said. “I didn’t realize she was giving the world the finger,” she added with a laugh, noting that her daughter had posed with both middle fingers up.
Zayas’s friends and family shared photos of their beach memorial on social media with the hashtag #LivelikeAlexis. The phrase, they said, is a reminder to embrace the message of carpe diem, or “seize the day,” by which Zayas lived. It extended beyond simply seeking thrills.
Zayas had a habit that stuck out to her girlfriend, Sophie Villarreal. When they ate out together, Villarreal said, Zayas would save some of her food to give to any homeless people they spotted on their way home.
Jacobs said that her daughter often asked her friends if they had any unwanted clothes that she could donate to local shelters. “She’s just got such a caring, giving nature,” she said, adding that her daughter donated her hair to Locks for Love as a child, always encouraged her friends to donate blood, worked as the lifeguard at neighborhood children’s parties and was an organ donor.
At a June 6 memorial service at Temple Emanu-El in East Meadow, loved ones shared the impact that Zayas had on their lives. They included her ex-husband, John Zayas; Villarreal; her boyfriend, Charlie Scerbo; her brothers Matthew, 24, and Daniel, 22; and her friend Ken Lobban.
“She flew into my friends, my family and my life . . . for the better,” Scerbo said, adding that his girlfriend pulled him out of his comfort zone and lived each day spontaneously and with purpose.
The 28-year old Levittown resident began dating Zayas roughly two years ago, and went skydiving with her for his birthday one year, which Scerbo said he had always wanted to do.
Zayas had completed 15 tandem jumps and three solo jumps before skydiving on June 2. Jacobs went with her on the trip, and recounted watching her daughter jump out of the plane and, seconds later, seeing a parachute drift off in another direction, not realizing that it was her. Jacobs initially thought Zayas had landed, but soon found out what had happened.
Zayas was rushed to Athol Memorial Hospital, then to University of Massachusetts Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, where she died on June 4.
A representative of Jumptown Skydiving, who declined to be identified, said this was the first incident of its kind at the skydiving company, which has been in operation since 1959. The Orange Police Department and the Massachusetts State Police are still investigating the case.
“She was my wild and crazy puppy,” said Villareal, who described herself as an introvert, in contrast to Zayas’s gregarious and outgoing nature. But the two were inseparable, she said, calling Zayas her “lover” and “guardian.”
Zayas was born on March 26, 1991, in Staten Island, and lived there for two years before moving to East Meadow, where she attended East Meadow High School. She went on to study criminal justice and deviant behavior at John Jay College in Queens. When she graduated, her mother said, she passed the New York City Police Department exam and wanted to become a special victims officer, working with abused women and children. While she searched for jobs in the field, she worked as a swim instructor at Safe-T-Swim in Levittown and a caregiver for a number of local residents with physical disabilities.
“Nothing happens for a reason,” her brother Matthew said at her memorial. “But everything happens because of a reason. I know a lot of good things will happen because of Lexi.”
Her brothers were her closest friends, her mother said, and she had their names tattooed on her ankles because she saw herself as their protector.
The memorial was held at the temple where Zayas attended Hebrew School as a child, but her mother said that she wasn’t religious. She believed, however, “that there’s more to the universe than just us,” Jacobs said, and was fond of the yin-yang symbol and intrigued by the balance between good and evil in the universe.
Her childhood friend Caitlyn Foglietta, 26, of Wantagh, said that Zayas spoke of that balance even as a child. At age 10, she gave Foglietta a purple mirror with the image of a sun against a background of shooting stars. “I put it up in my room all those years ago,” Foglietta said, “and it’s still there.”
Foglietta said that the message #LivelikeAlexis resonates with her, though she saw Zayas less often in recent years. Her friend would ask her to go on spontaneous trips to places like Six Flags or the beach, she added, but she would often decline because of work and other obligations. “But hindsight’s 20/20,” Foglietta said. “I wish I could have made the time for that.”
Jacobs said that her daughter had helped people understand their potential. Foglietta said that Zayas’s life’s purpose was helping others, and that she passed it on to her friends and family. And after choking back a tear, Matthew told the audience at Temple Emanu-El, “Each of you will leave here and do several good things because you were inspired by Alexis.”