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The Flight Home
Comments () | Published October 1, 2008
He worried that the crash was his fault. If he hadn’t asked for the ride, he reasoned, none of this would have happened. Jason would still have his father and wouldn’t be lying in a hospital facing an uncertain future.

Before Christmas, Jason was transferred to the University of Pennsylvania hospital and, a few days later, to Bryn Mawr Rehabilitation Hospital outside Philadelphia. Soon after, Joy Sutherland drove Sean and his girlfriend to Philly to visit.

As the boys tossed a tiny ball back and forth, they talked about the crash. Sean voiced his fears about having caused it all. Early had his own worries—that Sean had trusted him and his father to keep him safe but they hadn’t. Each assured the other that his fears were misplaced. They had needed each other out there. If one of them had died, they wondered, would the other have survived?

“Remember when you said, ‘I can’t wait to be in a hospital bed’?” Early asked. Sean nodded. “Now I can’t wait to get the hell out of here.”

Someone had blown up a picture of Jason playing basketball and propped it against the far wall. The photograph was from the game against Methodist before the crash. In it, Jason wraps his arm around a Methodist player to deliver an acrobatic pass.

“You know,” Sean said, “that pass was to me.”

Investigators haven’t yet determined the cause of the crash. A preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board concludes that there was “no external evidence of a catastrophic engine failure.” The parachute system was found stowed in its position, uninflated.

Jason says he believes everything happens for a reason, though he’s still searching for how to explain the crash. Sometimes he wonders if it was all a dream.

On January 26, two months after the crash, Jason left the hospital with a walker and returned home. A few weeks later, more than 1,000 people gathered at the family’s church for Brian Early’s funeral. Before the service, the crowd stood and clapped, a spontaneous ovation to honor him. It lasted five minutes.

After several of Early’s friends spoke, Jason walked to the lectern. He told a story about how he and his father had once walked up the 18th green of a Philadelphia golf course when his dad turned to him, put his arms around him, and said: “You’ll never walk alone.”

Days after the funeral, Sean and Jason walked together across the basketball court at Lynchburg for senior night. The crowd cheered. Later, as the announcer called out the starting lineups, Jason’s friend and housemate Evan Fancourt pulled off his warm-up to reveal Jason’s number-15 jersey.

Jason graduated with his class in May. He continues physical therapy, can move all his fingers, and is playing golf again. This summer, at the family’s lake house in Wisconsin, he sprinkled some of his father’s ashes in the water.

Sean played in a basketball league in Alexandria this summer and coached at several area camps while running his own landscaping business. He has returned to Lynchburg for his senior year with the hope of playing basketball.

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This article first appeared in the October 2008 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles like it, click here.    


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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 10/01/2008 RSS | Print | Permalink | Articles