Jessica Stilley had watched her best friend Bailee Ackerman Byler walk down the aisle hours before the bride and her groom Will were killed in a helicopter crash after flying off from their wedding venue in Uvalde, Texas.
Stilley, who served as maid of honor, mourned Byler’s death on Instagram, just days after the newlyweds from Sam Houston State University crashed into the side of a hill about a mile from the family ranch on Saturday. Bailee and Will were both 24 years old.
“My sweet Bailee Raye, my heart is broken in a million little pieces as I sit here and think of the rest of my life without my best friend. I’m so sad to even be captioning these pictures with this, but you know I just have to share with everyone how beautiful you looked on your wedding day like I normally would have,” Stilley captioned photos of her and Byler, who was dressed in her beaded wedding gown.
“Standing beside you as your Maid of Honor, chasing your veil around in the wind Saturday as you said ‘I Do’ and you looking back at me saying ‘Thanks Jess’, it’ll replay in my mind forever,” Stilley continued.
“I’ll never forget helping you get ready that day while I cried tears of happiness telling you how much I loved you and how thankful I was for this true friendship we shared and I’ll never forget the sweetest words you said back to me. I’ll always cherish the speech you asked me to give at the rehearsal and the opportunity you gave me to tell you and everyone else how special both you and Will are to me,” she recalled.
“I’m so happy you married the man of your dreams and found the precious love you deserved with him. We always said we’d find the men to sweep us off our feet one day and boy am I so happy you get to be with him in the best forever you could imagine,” Stilley wrote.
“Thank you for loving me from the day we met. Thank you for being the very best, best friend I could ever ask for. Thank you for always being there for me. Thank you for laughing and crying your way through life with me. Thank you for being the sister I never had. I love you so much Bai,” she concluded.
Byler often posted about her friendship with Stilley. Before her death, Byler shared her favorite photos from the pair’s trip to Nashville together in August. “Thankful for her friendship,” Byler wrote.
On Monday, authorities identified the pilot of the helicopter as Gerald Douglas Lawrence, 76, who was also killed in the crash. Lawrence was taking the groom and bride to a local airport, where they would fly to their honeymoon location, according to Judge Steve Kennedy, Justice of the Peace for Precinct 1 in Uvalde County, who spoke with local news outlets.
The crash occurred around 1:57 a.m. local time on Sunday morning, a spokesperson for the National Transportation Safety Board told PEOPLE.
Kennedy explained the groom’s father was the owner of the helicopter, a Bell 206B but Lawrence had piloted the aircraft for about 20 years.
“It’s just really sad. Tragic,” Kennedy said. “It was not a great big helicopter. It was in pieces when I saw it up on the top of the hill. It was really hard to get to.”
Eric Smith, one of 700 wedding guests, posted on Facebook about the crash. “We celebrated their fairy tale wedding and they were surrounded by their family and friends as they flew off in the family helicopter,” he recalled. “Sadly they crashed into the side of a hill about a mile from the family ranch.”
The National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration are investigating the crash.