Commentary | Search for missing University of Florida student Christian Aguilar brings South Florida together

I don’t know a parent who can turn away from the tragic Christian Aguilar story – and from the search for the 18-year-old University of Florida student from Miami, now in its 12th day.

When we send our children away to college, we do so with sweet sorrow — but with hearts full of hope. Of all the perils we can foresee and warn against as we hug them goodbye, deadly envy — the unraveling of a friendship more complex than we can see — is usually not one of them.

Who could have predicted this family’s loss?

It’s heartbreaking to peruse online photo albums of the Aguilar’s family trips to the mountains — father Carlos and his two sons horse-playing by a creek, mother Claudia surely taking the pictures — and to be witnesses to their joyful conversations over meals with friends.

Theirs were lives built around family ties that straddled, culturally and linguistically, the United States and the family’s native Colombia.

You can almost hear the salsa music in the background and the laughter. You can sense the pride in their oldest son, Christian, who graduated with top honors from Doral Academy and made it into the state’s top university. You can see how the younger Aguilar brother looked up to Christian and felt safe in his presence.

But now Christian, 18, has been missing since Sept. 20 — and Pedro Bravo, also 18, a childhood friend from that safe world who went with him to Doral Academy and followed him to Gainesville, has been charged with his murder.

Traces of blood were found in Pedro’s Chevy Blazer and Christian’s bloody backpack in his closet. The young man who was once a close friend, whose parents were friends of the Aguilars, and who told police that he beat up Christian and left him by the roadside, is not talking anymore.

And Christian’s parents wake up every day to the nightmare that their son has not been found. Not his body, as hard as that thought is to grasp, but so likely at this moment.

“Please help us find Christian,” appeals an aunt, Giovanna Gallego, all the way from Cali in her Facebook page. “I ask of everyone to please pray for the young man who attacked my nephew. That the Lord enlighten him and soften his heart, that he relieve himself of this great burden he is carrying on his conscience, to allow us all to enjoy my nephew's company again.”

She posts daily the search areas so that volunteers can help canvass a city known for its lush foliage and vastly forested areas, far too many for a search like this. So do Christian’s friends from Sweetwater, Doral, and their friends from all over South Florida — a chain of help and hope.

A similar plea — transmitted on T-shirts worn by teens on the beach, blasted in flyers to be passed out at the upcoming football game — is echoed on dozens of Internet sites from South Florida to Gainesville. They multiply everyday, as do the volunteers, the equipment and the government agencies making the six-hour drive to north central Florida.

And Wednesday, a prayer service for Christian is to be held at 8 p.m. at Prince of Peace Catholic Church, 12800 N.W. Sixth St.., in Miami.

I can’t remember another time — not since Hurricane Andrew in 1992 — when South Floridians have come together like this, so massively, and giving so much of themselves to engage in a cause.

Friends and strangers bonded by the horrible thought that Christian could’ve been our kid, that the Aguilars could be anyone of us. That bond is a light on this fragile family’s path.