SAN ANTONIO – For Gilbert Alvarez III and his family, big parties and get-togethers are a way of life - big parties filled with the big personality of his father's cousin, Steve Martinez.
But starting with what was supposed to have been Alvarez and Martinez's joint birthday party Saturday night, that won't be the case for their family ever again. Martinez had been 60 for only a day when he died Thursday in a crash in the Houston area.
"I feel it in my throat. It just gets tight, and I just feel like, you know, he should be here today," Alvarez said.
Investigators said a deputy came across a vehicle early Thursday that was facing the wrong direction of the I-10 bridge over the San Jacinto River in Harris County. The deputy stopped to investigate the scene and determined the driver was involved in a minor crash, spun out and ended up on the wrong side of the interstate, facing oncoming traffic.
Officials said that while the deputy was investigating the crash, an 18-wheeler hit the vehicle that had spun out. The driver of the semi, Martinez, lost control and crashed through a guardrail, and the truck plunged nearly 30 feet to the river below.
Without warning, Martinez's life as a husband, father and grandfather was over before he'd had a chance to return home and celebrate its latest chapter with family.
As family members made food for 30 on Saturday, they prepared for a different night than they had planned. Rather than celebrate Martinez's birthday, they were ready to remember him, trying to focus less on their loss and more on the quirks that defined him.
He was the one who always brought chicken to the barbecue, who loved his work as a truck driver and who was quick to let loose a distinctive laugh.
"We were looking for videos and voice recordings last night. And it's like, when you're trying to find it, you can't find it. So it's going to come up when we least expect it going through home videos," Alvarez said.
Besides his laugh, Alvarez said, they would remember his kind heart.
"He didn't see any wrong anything. You know, even if wrong was done to him," Alvarez said.
But there was no doubt that without Martinez, the evening would be different.
"It's going to be a hard night for us, definitely."