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When Teenagers Drive Way Too Fast
Comments () | Published December 1, 2009

They told Heeney they hadn’t realized Zach was still excluded from their car insurance—they thought they’d corrected that, and Scott called the night of the accident to be sure. Sheri says Scott made the call to GEICO that night just after 9—the police report says 10:08—before he’d heard about the crash, because their premium was due and he was trying to clear up the confusion about Zach’s coverage.

The Kimbles’ health insurance wasn’t going to fully cover grief counseling for Zach, and they couldn’t afford to pay out of pocket. Later they tried three therapists, but Zach didn’t feel any of them understood what he was going through.

While police investigated the crash, Heeney asked Zach not to talk to anyone about it. Zach couldn’t go around expressing remorse even though it would feel good to reach out and would be the right thing to do. It might damage his legal situation.

His parents couldn’t talk, either. “We wanted to talk to the families,” says Sheri. “We wanted to be there.” She was getting e-mails from people she’d never met, accusing her family of hiding behind their faith, asking why they wouldn’t speak out. “They didn’t understand that we couldn’t.”

When Zach and his parents showed up at shock-trauma—where Brittany would spend three weeks—Tammy hadn’t heard any details about the crash. Zach went into Brittany’s room and held her hand for a few minutes. His only injury was a broken wrist.

“I just kept thinking: It was an accident—it was really nobody’s fault,” Tammy says.

She knew Zach was inexperienced, but she didn’t know how fast he’d been going and that he’d driven illegally.

This kid’s going to have to deal with this the rest of his life, Tammy thought. For a while, she felt bad for him.

She went online and saw blog posts about the crash that blamed parents for not paying closer attention to what their kids were doing. She’d always worried about the narrow roads around Damascus. Brittany, who had her learner’s permit, wasn’t allowed to ride with anyone other than a parent.

“You can be the most churchgoing person in the world and you can instill values in your kid, but it all comes down to the decisions they’re going to make when they’re not around you,” says Brittany’s stepfather, who took off three months to help care for her.

Zach and his parents aren’t the only ones Joe blames. “She knew better than to get in the car,” he says of Brittany. “She knew better than to not wear a seat belt.”

There was a bigger crowd than usual at Young Life the week after the crash. Friends of Ryan’s came to see why the meetings had meant so much to him—he’d posted “God is my #1” on Facebook. Zach and Kirstin were in the audience as the group prayed for Brittany’s and Ryan’s families.

Kirstin—who had a broken wrist, pelvis, and tailbone along with fractures in her face—was so traumatized after the accident that she had to sleep with her mother.

Friends told Kirstin they’d heard she’d lost both of her legs; someone sent her a text message saying Brittany had died, a rumor that was going around school. She saw comments online about how the kids in the car must have been drinking.

She kept telling herself Ryan was on vacation and she’d see him when she went back to school.

As the weeks went on, kids in Young Life started asking questions. How could this happen? Why would God let it happen?

“I don’t know how to answer that,” says Brian Jablonski, a Young Life leader who’d given the closing prayer the night of the crash. “Kids said, ‘You prayed for safety.’ ”

Jablonski, who’d pulled Brittany out of the car that night, talked to a pastor at his church. The pastor told him, “Sometimes God’s not good with the ‘why.’ ”

Montgomery County police detective Bruce Werts analyzed fresh marks on the tree Zach hit and the damage to the Volvo. He looked at tire marks in the grass—there were no skid marks on the road—and measured the distance from where the Volvo left the road to where it hit the tree.

He calculated the energy needed to crush the car and how much it took for the car to rotate and drop. Using those numbers and others, he determined that Zach had been going at least 55 miles an hour.

The driver of the oncoming car—a mother taking her teenage daughter home from confirmation class—told police she thought the Volvo had been going at least 70 and she’d expected a head-on collision. Her car never made contact with Zach’s, and she and her daughter were uninjured.

Kirstin told Werts she’d looked at the speedometer before the crash and it was “to the right, past the straight-up position,” which put it in the area of 73 to 85 miles per hour.

Werts didn’t have evidence to prove any of that.

Tom Didone tried to stay out of the investigation. He didn’t want anyone to claim that he’d influenced the case.

“I kind of tried to play the role of a parent,” he says.

It would be months before investigators decided whether or not to charge Zach.

Tom started telling Ryan’s story at high-school assemblies and parent meetings. At some of them, he’d expect 60 parents and about six would show up.

“I’ve been told countless times about parents that really don’t even spend the time in the car with their kids—they just fudge it,” he says. “Some parents don’t want to be taxi drivers anymore. I would be a taxi driver for my son for the rest of his life if he would come back.”

Doctors put mitts on Brittany’s hands because she kept trying to pull her tubes out and scratch the staples in her head. When Tammy took one of the mitts off so she could hold her daughter’s hand, Brittany went right for the tubes. Tammy pushed her arm away.

“Stop!” Brittany said.

Joe looked up from his laptop: “What did you just say?” Two weeks had passed; she hadn’t spoken since the accident.

“I have to itch,” she said.

She was transferred to the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore for rehabilitation. She was still eating through a tube, and her neck was fractured, so she had to wear a brace.

Brittany’s grandparents were with her when she first started asking questions.

“I’m really confused,” she said. Her grandmother ran to get Tammy.

Tammy and Joe told Brittany about the car and Ryan. She didn’t say much.

“I don’t think it processed,” Brittany says now. Doctors advised them not to bring it up again until she did.

Months later, someone asked Brittany if she’d been at the wheel when the car crashed. She didn’t know.

“Mom, was I driving?” she asked.

Brittany spent seven weeks in intensive occupational and physical therapy at Kennedy Krieger. She played Nintendo Wii to work on mobility and learned to walk with a cane. At one point, a social worker asked Tammy, “Does this feel like the new norm?”

The question angered her. Brittany had played soccer and volleyball. The day after the accident, she was supposed to shop for shoes to wear to homecoming. Now she was learning how to dress herself. This will never be normal, Tammy thought.

Zach went back to Damascus High two weeks after the crash. Chris and Kirstin had to spend a few months at home recovering; Brittany would be out for most of the year.

Zach spent the first few days in the counselor’s office. Some of his friends—including Chris—stopped speaking to him. Zach couldn’t go to the cafeteria because he and Ryan had always eaten lunch together.

He heard that people were talking about him. “I was called a murderer,” he says. “That’s one that has stuck with me.”

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Posted at 04:00 PM/ET, 12/01/2009 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles