A friend told her, “Yes, he killed your brother, but he didn’t intentionally kill your brother.”
Kara doesn’t like to call what happened an accident. She calls it a crash or a collision. “It was preventable,” she says.
Kara met a 23-year-old named Danny McCoy, a Magruder High School graduate who had been driving with a girl he’d just met one night when he hit a telephone pole in Rockville. He was 19 at the time, a Marine who was home for the weekend.
He’d been out drinking in College Park and was on his way home to his parents’ house in Derwood. Danny was okay, but his passenger died. He told the girl’s parents at his sentencing that his focus in life would be to help them with their pain. He wrote them a letter from jail.
“Danny did what I would expect someone to do,” says Kara. “He knew it was his fault.”
When Kara saw Zach’s profile picture on Facebook—a photo of him and Ryan at Young Life camp, with their Mohawks—she asked friends to tell him to take it down. He didn’t.
“He needs to spend some time in jail,” she says. “Maybe not his whole life, but that’s what I would’ve liked.”
Tom Didone spoke at a high-school assembly in Poolesville in May with the Volvo out front. Some schools put totaled cars on display during prom season to deter teens from driving drunk or aggressively.
Kara heard that her dad was taking the car to schools and asked him to stop.
“This is his son that was killed—this isn’t just another accident,” she says. “My brother was killed in that car.”
Tom told Kara that if the car wasn’t there, he couldn’t reach kids the way he did. He said as soon as he mentioned what happened in the Volvo, a hush would come over the auditorium. “I tried to explain to her: ‘The truth is, this time next year no one may want to listen.’ This car is too valuable.”
In April, he stood in front of the car at the Capitol, urging Congress to pass the Safe Teen and Novice Driver Uniform Protection Act, which would establish minimum federal requirements for graduated-licensing laws. Currently, teens in nearly every state go through three levels—a learner’s permit, a provisional license, and a full license—and laws vary.
Maryland teens can get a learner’s permit at 15 years and 9 months; that would change to 16 years. The act would prevent unsupervised teen drivers from having more than one passenger in the car until they had full license privileges at age 18. Teens wouldn’t be allowed to use a cell phone while driving, except for emergencies, until they turn 18.
After the crash, Chris Nicholson’s father took him to Young Life one night and noticed kids speeding out of the driveway. Kara heard a lot of teens say they weren’t going to speed anymore or drive with too many kids in the car.
“None of it’s true,” she says. “I know of a girl that not even three weeks after the accident—she’d only had her license for a month and a half—had six kids packed in the car. I’ve seen the boys coming out of the high school squealing tires.”
Brittany went back to school full-time in September with an individualized education plan designed for special-needs students. “I hate that my brain injury is considered special ed,” she says. She sometimes wishes Zach could see what it’s like for her: “He should have to live a day in my life.”
Her hair is growing out. If it weren’t for the scar on her forehead, you might look at her and not know anything was wrong.
She’d planned to take AP courses as a junior; she’s now in on-level classes and has an aide helping her. She used to get A’s and B’s without studying; math was her best subject. By the third week of classes this year, she was failing Algebra II.
Her mother says, “It’s really hard because people look at you and it’s almost like you can feel them thinking: ‘You need to be happy that she’s alive, that she survived it’—and I am. But I also don’t want to accept that more than likely shes not going to be able to be what she could have been before the accident.”
Brittany often has to reread paragraphs to understand them. She takes the elevator between classes, even though she wants to walk with her friends. If you lose your balance in the stairwell, her mom tells her, people are going to trample you.
Tammy and Joe worry about Brittany’s maturity level. She posts things on Facebook that might normally embarrass her. She wants to babysit her brother, but what if someone texts her and she gets distracted?
Her mind doesn’t work the way it used to—her parents worry that she’ll make a bad decision. They won’t let her go out for pizza with friends unless someone they trust is there—she might not look before she crosses the street. “That’s what most people don’t see,” Tammy says. “They say, ‘Oh, Brittany’s back.’ They don’t see how it has affected her entire life.”
Ryan’s mother, Marlene, started teaching driver’s ed again a few months ago. She tells her students what happened to Ryan. She’s not the only police officer working there who’s lost a teenager in a crash.
She isn’t ready to speak to the media about her son. Her best friend, Robin Mongold, says sometimes Marlene still expects Ryan to walk through the door. The first time Marlene heard a motorcycle, she broke down.
The two women were at Red Robin recently when a group of teenagers walked in. Says Mongold: “I looked at her and I knew exactly what she was thinking, because I was, too: That could’ve been Ryan.”
At the candlelight vigil at school, Mongold saw all the tears and wanted to tell the kids: Remember this. Remember how you feel right now—before you get in the car.
Both of Ryan’s parents were engaged to other people before the crash. Both engagements ended within months of his death. His sister, Kara, couldn’t focus at school, so she left Montgomery College. Now she’s in cosmetology school. She has said she’ll have a baby boy one day and name him Ryan.
Brittany ran into Zach one Sunday last spring. Friends from Young Life had invited her and her parents to their church, and Tammy and Joe forgot that Zach’s family went there. Zach and his parents hugged Brittany—Tammy tried not to look at them—and asked how she was doing.
“It’s good to see you,” they said.
Sheri Kimble had followed Brittany’s progress on her family’s journal on CaringBridge.org, checking the site almost every day.
“I was really inspired to see Brittany walk into our church,” says Scott Kimble. “I can’t tell you how ecstatic I was. Just her presence was absolutely amazing.”
Zach says he thinks about Brittany daily; he occasionally texts or e-mails her. He passes the accident site nearly every week when he goes to Young Life. Friends give him rides; his boss at his masonry job picks him up for work. Zach has a metal plate in his wrist. He says he’s driven a few times since the accident, but he doesn’t like to.
When he dreams about that night, Zach sees the accident happening all over again. This time he’s outside the Volvo. “I see the car coming around the curve. Then I hear Chris screaming,” he says.
Music helps: “There’s a song called ‘Live Your Life’ by T.I., and I heard that shortly after the accident and felt like it was Ryan telling me to keep going.”
Until recently, Zach didn’t talk to his parents about the future. He didn’t get his financial aid sorted out in time to register for classes this fall. He’s hoping to go to Montgomery College next semester, then transfer to Towson University. He wants to get out of Damascus.
Asked if his punishment was fair, Zach says that’s not something he thinks about: “I’ve just been thinking more about my friend being gone in an accident where I was driving.”
His mom has thought about it: “That’s a hard question to answer,” she says. “I don’t think they could’ve done anything to him that would’ve been worse than what he’s feeling himself.”
When Brittany sees photos from the weeks after the accident, she feels as if she’s looking at somebody else. “If I think about the past, all it does is make me sad,” she says. ”
Doctors say most of Brittany’s recovery will happen in the first year or two. Because she’s young, she has a better chance of making close to a full recovery, but the fatigue and memory problems may last a little longer. Tammy can’t go back to work because she needs to be home for Brittany, so she and Joe put their townhouse up for sale.
Brittany has been in counseling since she got home from Kennedy Krieger. She’s told her therapist, “I think it should have been me instead of Ryan—I think he was a better person than I am.” Tammy says that’s partly the brain injury talking.
Sometimes Brittany thinks she’s remembering the accident, but she doesn’t know what’s real and what she’s imagining. Tammy and Joe were told she’ll never remember.
“Her mind just shut it out,” Joe says, “and I think that’s helped her heal.”
As the one-year anniversary of the accident approached, Ryan’s sister, Kara, started planning a memorial motocross ride in her brother’s honor. Her best friend, Jimmy Hawkins, a racer she’d met through Ryan, was helping her put it together.
Jimmy had graduated from Damascus in 2007, a year before Kara. There was a photo of him in a newspaper article the day after Ryan’s death, sitting at the crash site, wiping his face with his sweatshirt. He said to Kara at Ryan’s funeral, “You don’t have to worry—I’m going to take care of you.” They’d talked on the phone almost every day since.
On the first Monday in October of this year, Kara talked to Jimmy in the afternoon and he said he’d call her later. She was at home when another friend called.
“Jimmy,” the friend said. He kept repeating the name. “Jimmy. Jimmy. Jimmy.”
“What happened?” Kara asked.
Around 7 that evening, her best friend, Jimmy, had driven his 1989 Chevrolet Cavalier over a hill on a country road in Mount Airy and collided with an oncoming car. Police say he was speeding and driving recklessly. The Cavalier rolled three times, and four people were injured. Jimmy, who wasn’t wearing a seat belt, was ejected from the car. He died at the scene.