Brittany Jones—shown with her family—was in the back seat of the Volvo that crashed. Her injuries required more than 11 hours of surgery; she spent seven weeks in rehab and is still in physical therapy. Brittany, who had been planning to take AP classes this year, is in regular-level classes as she recovers from the damage to her brain. Of Zach, the driver, she says: “He should have to live a day in my life.” Photograph of Jones by Matthew Worden.
“I remember coming down, going around the curve, and I saw bright headlights. So I hit the brakes a little bit, and I pulled the steering wheel to the right—just a little bit, just to compensate and make sure the person had enough room—and my right front tire caught gravel. And no matter what I did, I couldn’t get control of it.”
He remembers waking up in the car, running up to the road from the woods, yelling for help. He remembers trying to get his friend Chris out of the front seat, away from the flames, and not being able to get the door open. He and Chris were close—they were always shooting hoops and hanging out. “I just felt so helpless,” Zach says.
The small fire in the Volvo’s engine was almost like a trick candle. People who stopped to help were pouring bottles of water and Gatorade on it. An off-duty detective used his fire extinguisher, but the flames kept coming back.
“The only thing that I could do was reach in and get his seat belt off, and then my friend came and pulled me back up to the road,” Zach says. “And then I black out again.”
Neurosurgeons had to remove a portion of the right side of Brittany’s skull hours after the accident. The trauma to her head had caused blood vessels to tear and leak and to form a thick layer of blood clot on her brain. She arrived at the shock-trauma center alert and talking, then lost consciousness. Removing part of the skull relieved the swelling in her brain and allowed surgeons to remove the blood clot.
Doctors performed 11 more hours of surgery the next day, repairing a crushed sinus cavity in her forehead and treating a collapsed lung and broken arm.
The day after the surgery, Tammy saw two teens standing in the hallway. “We’re looking for Brittany Jones,” one said.
Brittany’s head was shaved and bandaged. A neck brace covered most of her face. Her brown eyes were swollen shut.
“This is her,” Tammy said.
Joe asked Brittany’s friends not to talk to her about the accident or about Ryan. She’d suffered a brain injury. She was starting to wave and respond to simple commands, but she didn’t know what happened in the crash. “Hi, Brittany, you’re in Baltimore,” nurses would say. “You were in a car accident.”
Doctors were able to remove Brittany’s breathing tube, but she developed a blood clot in her arm and an infection. She had limited movement on her right side. Each day Tammy sat by her daughter’s hospital bed, trying to get her to say something.
Marlene Didone called her pastor on the way to Baltimore’s shock-trauma center, where Ryan had been sent. The police officer who was driving her and Kara got lost, which Kara later saw as a blessing—less time in the waiting room, wondering.
Marlene had known Ryan was getting a ride to Young Life with Zach that night—he’d texted her to ask permission. He checked with his mom before he went anywhere. His sister didn’t know Zach, but she’d heard Ryan talk about him. She and her mom knew that Zach was two years older, and they assumed he’d been driving long enough to take teen passengers.
“He had driven him a handful of times in the summer,” says Kara, “with us being under the impression that he did in fact have his full license.”
Before Tom got into his car to drive to Baltimore, police officers told him how serious Ryan’s condition was. By the time he arrived, his son had lost a lot of blood. As a police officer, Tom had always watched bad things happen to other people. He’d spent years locking up drunk drivers and been in dozens of ERs. Now it was his child.
Tom hadn’t seen much of Ryan in the weeks before the accident. They hadn’t been getting along—Ryan and Kara had sided with their mom during the divorce. Ryan was training to make it to the amateur national motocross championship. Tom told his son the sport was too dangerous.
“Why can’t you support me?” Ryan asked. He told his dad he didn’t want to be a cop, even though he told Kara he really did.
Tom and Ryan got along best fishing and playing golf. “I could see what a good kid he was,” Tom says. “And how lucky I was.” He’d called Ryan a few days before the crash and said he was proud of him.
Around midnight, three hours after the closing prayer at Young Life, a shock-trauma doctor came to talk with Ryan’s family. Tom knew what the doctor was going to say—he recognized the expression. As a cop, he’d had to knock on doors and tell parents they’d lost a child. How am I going to say this? he’d think. What words am I going to use?
Zach and Ryan had become friends during a Young Life trip to Colorado the summer before the accident. The ride took 30 hours each way. “It was the longest trip ever,” Zach says.
He and Ryan stayed in the same cabin and spent a week enjoying the outdoors—volleyball tournaments, an obstacle course. They swapped stories about girls and sports—Ryan’s life revolved around motocross; Zach traveled a lot for wrestling tournaments. They took walks at 6 am and talked about God.
“There’s pictures everywhere,” Zach says. “Me and him. Me and him. Out in Colorado.”
One night at camp, counselors turned off the lights and everyone sat outside in silence for 15 minutes. Afterward, the teens got together and listened to “Amazing Grace,” and Ryan’s friend Kirstin started crying. Ryan gave her a hug.