Brittany Jones and Zach Kimble barely knew each other before that night. She was a sophomore honors student who’d just bought a dress for homecoming and couldn’t wait to start driving. He was a senior with his heart set on a wrestling title, making plans to go to college. Had they passed in the hallway of Damascus High School the next morning, they might have said hello.
Brittany wasn’t supposed to be riding with Zach that night in October of last year—her mother and stepfather didn’t let her drive with other teenagers—but two of her friends were getting a ride with him and it was only a few miles to the Burger King in Damascus, where the teens went after Young Life meetings.
“Come with us,” a friend said. So she did.
The five kids in the car had spent an hour at a meeting of Young Life, a Christian group for teens, where they sang, played games, talked about Jesus, and had a closing prayer.
“God, keep us safe as we go to Burger King. Help us continue to have fun hanging out,” a group leader said. “Amen.”
When Young Life ended, Brittany got into the back seat of Zach’s parents’ Volvo. Her friend Kirstin Newport, a cheerleader, went to get in next; Ryan Didone, the 15-year-old son of a Montgomery County police commander, switched places with Kirstin at the last minute so he could sit between the two girls.
Ryan was a class clown who had come home from Young Life camp that summer with a Mohawk. He raced dirt bikes on weekends and wore a cross around his neck.
The car was packed, the radio was on, and everyone was singing. It was a cool, dry night. Some of the seat belts weren’t touched. It was dark, and the two-lane winding road in upper Montgomery County didn’t have streetlights. Around 9:05, Zach came down a hill, picked up speed, saw headlights, and panicked.
A year after the accident, Brittany has no memory of a shock-trauma doctor shaving off the long brown hair she used to straighten every morning. She can’t recall much about the 16th-birthday party she had two weeks before the crash.
Her friend Kirstin, the cheerleader who was with her in the back seat, told her they had looked at each other before the impact and yelled, “Slow down!” Kirstin says that moment still plays in her head. Brittany doesn’t remember it.
Zach, the driver, remembers the look on the face of his friend Chris Nicholson, who was sitting next to him in the front and later was trapped in the burning car. Zach doesn’t sleep well because he’s scared of what he’ll see when he closes his eyes. He’s supposed to be off at college now, but he’s living at home and making a little money laying brick.
Ryan’s father has spent 15 years of his police career working on traffic safety, most recently focusing on teen drivers. He started speaking at high-school assemblies again a few months after the accident, this time showing students the mangled Volvo station wagon in which his son died.
The five teens—Zach, Brittany, Ryan, Chris, and Kirstin—weren’t legally allowed to be riding in the same car that night. Zach had received his provisional driver’s license less than three weeks earlier.
Under Maryland’s graduated-licensing system, designed to give young drivers more experience, teenagers can’t transport passengers under age 18—except family members—for the first 151 days of the provisional period without a supervising adult in the car.
Zach loaded up his parents’ Volvo anyway and went too fast—changing the lives of five young people and their families forever.
Almost everything about Brittany Jones’s bedroom says teenager, starting with the walls. Her grandfather painted them for her while she was in the hospital.
“I’m obsessed with turquoise now,” she says one morning in September of this year. “I don’t know why.”
Her dresser drawers look like school lockers. A poster from Twilight, a movie about a young girl who falls in love with a vampire, hangs above her bed. Glamour and Seventeen magazines fill a rack on the wall.
What seems out of place is a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle on Brittany’s desk. Her mother and stepfather like for her to work on it to stimulate her brain.
“I do, like, a half hour every day,” says Brittany, who’d hoped to be an emergency-room doctor one day. “I sit and stare at it because I can’t get any of the pieces.”
It was her stepfather—a Pentagon police sergeant—who answered the phone that night in October last year after the car Brittany was riding in hit a tree. Kids from Young Life had been caravanning to Burger King, and the teens in the car behind Zach’s stopped when they came upon a tree limb in the road.
A Young Life leader named Bobby Patton pulled his van over and saw Zach walking toward the road and flames in the woods. Patton ran to the burning blue Volvo and found Chris trapped in the front seat. The back door was open, and Kirstin was sitting up, dazed but conscious.
“Can you walk?” Patton asked her. He helped Kirstin out, left her with another adult, and went back for Ryan, who was slumped over in the middle seat.
“Ryan! Ryan!” he said. “Come on! Come on!” He picked him up and laid him on the ground, then tried to put out the fire in the engine by tossing dirt on it. He went back and forth between Ryan and Chris until help arrived. Another group leader pulled Brittany from the back seat and carried her up to the road. She had a deep gash in her forehead.
Brittany’s parents, Joe and Tammy, had been getting ready to put their nine-month-old son to sleep when the call came. Brittany adored Logan, her baby brother, and couldn’t wait to take him trick-or-treating. She’d already decided she wanted four kids of her own—two girls and two boys.