“If you really want to talk to someone, you should talk to Zach,” he told her. “He’s the most Christian person I know.”
When Zach and Ryan got home from camp, they were inseparable. They ate lunch together in the cafeteria. They hung out and rode four-wheelers. Ryan told his auto-mechanics teacher, a church deacon, “I gave my heart to the Lord this summer.”
Shortly after the accident, Zach’s parents told him the news while he was lying in the ER at Montgomery General Hospital. His friend Ryan was dead.
In Damascus, people go to high-school football games even if they don’t have kids. A church sign reads: tell your wife and kids you love them.
The line at Ryan’s viewing wrapped around the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer. Ryan’s grandmother put her arms around every teen who walked by Ryan’s casket. “Please don’t let this happen to you,” she said.
When Ryan’s funeral procession passed through town the next morning, four days after the crash, strangers stood outside to watch.
“We should never forget the life lessons we’ve learned out of this experience,” Ryan’s father said in his eulogy. It was the morning of the homecoming football game. “Starting tonight, when we kick Seneca Valley’s ass, we will begin going down the path of healing.”
He had spoken at a candlelight vigil less than 24 hours after Ryan’s death; some were surprised he could stay so composed. He saw this as a chance to get through to kids. Now he wasn’t just a cop; he was a cop who’d lost a son. He wanted to speak out while Ryan’s peers were listening.
Chris Nicholson—who’d spent four days at Suburban Hospital after he was rescued from the burning car—convinced doctors to let him go to the funeral. He arrived in a wheelchair. He had leg injuries, fractures in his face and hand, and crushed sinus cavities.
A police officer told Chris that if he hadn’t been wearing his seat belt, he would have died one of two ways: His head would have gone through the windshield or he would have broken his neck.
According to police, Chris was the only one in the car wearing a seat belt. Zach says he had his on; the crash investigator says he didn’t. Brittany, Ryan, and Kirstin—all in the back seat—weren’t wearing theirs. Ryan died of multiple head injuries. The force of Brittany’s body slamming into the front seat was part of the reason Chris was pinned under the dashboard.
Ryan’s friends showed up at the homecoming game with “101,” his motocross number, painted on their chests. The players ran through a banner that read: we have an angel on our side.
Zach wanted to go to Ryan’s funeral, but his parents, Scott and Sheri, wouldn’t let him. They’d called their pastor for advice.
“We were afraid that if he went, it would hurt people,” says Sheri. “We didn’t want any of the focus put on him.”
The next day, the Kimbles were driving home to Mount Airy when they passed by Ryan’s family’s church.
“We have to stop,” Zach’s father said.
Sheri pulled into the parking lot, and Scott went inside.
The pastor was on the phone. “Can I help you?” he asked when he hung up.
“I’m Zachary Kimble’s father.”
The pastor looked stunned. He told Scott he’d just been on the phone with Ryan’s mother talking about Zach.
Zach and his parents had been wanting to visit the Didones but couldn’t reach them. The pastor arranged a meeting.
When they spoke, neither family had an attorney. Scott and Sheri apologized and asked what they could do. When Zach broke down, Ryan’s parents embraced him.
As time went on, their compassion faded. Zach told a police officer he thought he’d been going about 50 miles per hour when he lost control of the car; the speed limit is 35.
The investigation showed that the Volvo’s registration was expired and the year decals were hidden by a cover around the license plate. Sheri had been stopped that summer for driving with expired tags. Zach’s parents had excluded him from their car’s insurance policy. According to the police report, someone called GEICO at 10:08 the night of the crash—about an hour after the accident—requesting that Zach be added back to the policy.
Zach’s driving history was complicated. He’d had his first learner’s permit nearly two years before the crash, but it was suspended when he didn’t pay the fee. The suspension was lifted in July 2008, but the permit had expired by then. Zach completed his classroom courses and “behind the wheel” time that summer—he didn’t need a permit to drive a vehicle in an accredited driving school—and was issued a second learner’s on September 13, 2008.
Sheri signed off on Zach’s driving log—Maryland teens have to drive 60 hours with an adult—and he got his provisional driver’s license on October 2, 18 days before the crash. Police say Zach did his 60 hours of practice driving without a valid learner’s permit; his parents say they thought the permit was valid when they paid the fee and that the Motor Vehicle Administration never told them otherwise.
“This kid had no business being on the road,” Ryan’s father says.
After the accident, Zach’s parents made him stay upstairs, closer to their room. His bedroom was in the basement, and he wasn’t eating or sleeping. He didn’t want to leave the house. When he did go out, he says, “I tried to put on a mask.”
The night of the homecoming dance—five days after the accident—Zach, Kirstin, and their dates went to Chris’s house for a quiet dinner. Ryan had just been buried; Brittany was still in shock-trauma.
Zach had apologized to Chris when he visited him in the hospital—there was a good chance his friend’s dreams of playing college basketball were over. “It’s okay,” Chris had said.
Chris didn’t remember anything that happened after the closing prayer the night of the accident. He didn’t know that for a few minutes, while he was still in the Volvo, police couldn’t tell his parents whether he was breathing.
When Chris’s mother heard Zach had been driving, she told police: “He couldn’t have been driving—he wasn’t allowed to have anybody in the car yet.”
When Zach’s parents dropped him off at Chris’s for dinner on homecoming night, Chris’s mother, Jeanette, thought: Here’s a family whose kid made a mistake.
One of the parents had brought over a nice meal, and Jeanette served Chris and his friends dinner. She thought it was strange that Zach didn’t seem more distraught.
A few weeks later, she says, Chris went on Facebook and saw photos of Zach at a party: “I think that’s when Chris got angry. Chris would say, ‘Why isn’t Zach cutting Brittany’s family’s yard? They’re at the hospital every day—why isn’t he helping them?’ ”
Attorney Tom Heeney met Zach Kimble and his parents in his Rockville office eight days after the crash. He says Zach was somber and tearful and took full responsibility. This could be anyone’s son, Heeney thought.
Zach told Heeney he was in the ROTC program at school. He told him about the auto-tech club—he loves working on cars—and his A average at school. He said he wasn’t sure where he wanted to go to college. SATs were coming up.
The Kimbles, Heeney learned, were struggling financially and were renting a house in Mount Airy. Sheri was homeschooling her younger son—Zach has a 9-year-old brother and 17-year-old sister—and Scott was doing commercial and residential appraisal work. He’d recently taken a pay cut, which meant Sheri would be going back to work soon.