They were six friends on vacation in the Caribbean, escaping the last bluster of the New York winter on the easygoing island of St. Maarten.
One of them, Ryan Smith, 25, and 6 feet 7 inches tall, had the resume of a rising star: a graduate of Columbia University, a former White House intern, a former intern at the David Letterman Show, and now a researcher at CBS News.
His mother, Patricia Smith, was at home in Sandusky, Ohio, last Thursday morning. She had just sent an e-mail to her son asking him how his vacation was going. She remembers that just after she clicked the SEND button on her computer the phone rang. It was one of her son's friends calling from St. Maarten.
"He told me that Ryan was badly hurt, had a head injury," she said. "And they were attacked, and Ryan took the worst of it."
"You can't believe it," she said, eyes filling with tears. "You can't believe it's your son."
Ryan Smith was airlifted to Miami where he is now in the intensive care unit of Jackson Memorial Hospital with a crushed skull and brain injuries in a suspected gay-bashing attack.
Dick Jefferson, a friend and colleague who was vacationing with Smith, also suffered injuries and was airlifted from St. Maarten to Miami. He was released from the hospital, but his head bears a huge scar, dozens of stitches, and a titanium plate implanted by neurosurgeons.
Jefferson, a senior broadcast producer for the "CBS Evening News," said the attack happened late at night, as he and others in a group were meeting at their car to head home to their rented villa. Smith and his boyfriend, Justin Swensen, had been at Bamboo Bernie's, a popular local bar while other friends had stopped at a casino nearby. As Jefferson approached the parking lot at Bamboo Bernie's, he saw a scuffle. He realized that Smith was being attacked by several men and was about to be hit by a speeding car.
"What the hell is going on?" Jefferson remembered asking.
Moments later, Jefferson said, he was knocked unconscious with a four-pronged tire wrench.
Swensen said that he had witnessed the entire incident and that the attack was a hate crime. He and Smith had been sitting together in Bamboo Bernie's, a bar where they had been previously welcomed. Smith was talking to Swensen about a recent family tragedy. They were hugging.
"Some of the local guys in the bar were sitting across from us. They started making fun of us," Swensen said. "We really we did nothing to provoke them."
The couple's hecklers were thrown out of the bar, but they allegedly waited in the parking lot for Smith and Swensen. Smith walked ahead of Swensen, who said he saw him get hit with rocks, spray cans, and then a tire iron. Meanwhile, a car headed straight at Swensen, who jumped onto the hood to avoid being run over.
Swensen and the others eventually got Smith and Jefferson to the hospital. He wasn't able to call Smith's parents until the morning.
It was a difficult conversation, he said. Smith's parents did not know who he was and yet he had to tell them their son had been gravely injured. When he was pressed to explain why the assault happened, Swensen said, he finally explained that it was a hate crime because he and Smith are gay.
"Ryan hadn't told them that before," he said.
Patricia Smith is not ready to talk about those issues. She is unwavering in her love for her son and her sense of injustice.