The Volvo hit a tree when it went off the road. The car shows even more damage in this photo—it was taken after rescuers extracted Chris Nicholson from the front seat. His legs were pinned under the dashboard of the burning car. Photograph of car courtesy of Montgomery County Police Department.
When Joe answered, one of Brittany’s friends was screaming into the phone.
“Slow down,” Joe said.
Brittany had been in an accident, the girl said, and was lying in the street. Joe and Tammy thought Brittany had been getting a ride to Burger King with a Young Life leader. They were strict with her: When she went to her boyfriend’s house, she had to text her mom a photo to prove there was an adult home. She knew the rules.
When Joe got to the site on Hawkins Creamery Road, he found Brittany in an ambulance, her head bleeding and her right arm broken. She was yelling that she couldn’t feel her legs.
Zach, the 17-year-old driver, was sitting behind her holding his wrist.
“It’s all my fault,” Joe remembers him saying. “It’s all my fault.”
Tom Didone, Ryan’s father, had been to hundreds of accident scenes. For a couple of years, it was his job to reconstruct fatal crashes in Montgomery County. That night, he saw the crushed Volvo and assured himself, “Ryan always wears his seat belt.”
Tom and his ex-wife, Marlene—a former Rockville police officer who teaches driver’s education at I Drive Smart—always told Ryan and his older sister, Kara, “The car doesn’t start until your seat belt’s on.” As Ryan got older, they’d never had to remind him.
Marlene had gotten a call from a friend around 9:15 that night, warning her to avoid Hawkins Creamery Road when she went to pick up Ryan because there’d been an accident. Marlene’s daughter, Kara, dialed Ryan’s number to make sure he was okay; when he didn’t answer, she dialed again. She called the Germantown police, but they could tell her only that it was a blue vehicle with five passengers. Then she called her dad.
“We think Ryan was in the accident—he’s not answering his phone,” she said. “What can you do?”
At the scene, Marlene ran past the police tape to look in the ambulances. Her kids had lived with her since she and Tom divorced five years earlier. She would drive Ryan to the track in Frederick after school so he could ride his dirt bike, and she spent weekends watching his races. He gave her a hug every time he left the house.
Paramedics were working on Ryan in the ambulance when Marlene found him. Kara, a student at Montgomery College, stood next to the ambulance and watched as firefighters extracted Chris from the front seat of the Volvo.
Kara knew Chris—a senior shooting guard vying for a Division III basketball scholarship—through Ryan. He’d been trapped more than 20 minutes in the front seat of the Volvo, at times with flames inches from his face. The fire was out, but he was screaming, “My legs are burning!”
“You’re not on fire anymore,” a captain was saying. “You’re not going to die. We’re going to get you out of here.”
Kara took pictures of the Volvo on her cell phone to show Ryan later what he’d been through. She kissed her brother on the head before he left in a Medevac helicopter.
An EMT told Joe they’d be taking Brittany to Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, but when he and Tammy got to the ER, Brittany wasn’t there. Two ambulances pulled up, and she wasn’t in either one; Chris and Brittany’s friend Kirstin were.
“Somebody needs to find out where she is,” Joe told a woman at the front desk. She gave him the number of the shock-trauma center at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore.
“I’m looking for my daughter,” Joe said when he called. Two accident victims had just arrived, he was told.
“What’s she wearing?” the nurse asked.
“Jogging pants and a tie-dyed T-shirt.”
It was about 11 pm when Joe and Tammy pulled out of the parking lot at Suburban. Tammy—who had moved to Washington from Florida with Joe and Brittany in 2005—didn’t know the area well and had never heard of the Baltimore shock-trauma center. On the drive there, she pictured Brittany with stitches and a cast. She expected to find her daughter looking for her, wondering what had taken her so long. Instead she found Brittany unconscious, covered in blood, tubes everywhere.
“You need to sign this,” a nurse said, waving a consent form. “We have to operate now.”
A year after the accident, Zach Kimble arrives for an interview in khakis and an American Eagle T-shirt. He’s wearing a Texas Longhorns hat backward. When he was young, he dreamed about going to college there. His wrestling coaches called him Cowboy.
Zach rarely talks about the accident. He’d hoped to get a college degree in psychology, become a Marine, and then get a job with the Drug Enforcement Administration or the CIA. Now he can’t fall asleep without TV or music because the silence is hard to bear. The accident is always there.
“I remember bits and pieces of what happened,” he says. “It’s almost like a strobe-light effect.”
There are moments Zach sees clearly, sometimes in his dreams, and parts of that night he can’t see at all.