News & Politics

Fatal Accident: I Never Even Saw Him

When a driver kills a pedestrian, there’s heartache and often blame. But in many cases, the accident isn’t the driver’s fault—sometimes no one is to blame. How does a good person live with the fact that she’s taken a life?

Gwen El Sawi wasn’t thinking about anything special the day 17-year-old Anthony Benson got off a Metrobus and ran into the path of her car.

El Sawi was on the way to her IBM office in Bethesda. She planned to leave early that day to visit her daughter in York­town, Virginia, and was looking forward to playing with her grandchildren.

It was a sunny Friday in July 2004. Rush hour was ending. El Sawi was driving her Toyota Camry on New Hampshire Avenue in Ashton, the road she usually took to work. She wasn’t speeding. Relatives of hers had died in car accidents. Her grown children were always telling her she was too cautious at the wheel.

About ten minutes into her commute, El Sawi passed a Metrobus stopped in the far right lane. There wasn’t a traffic light or stop sign in sight. As her car approached the front end of the bus, at about 35 miles an hour, she saw someone in front of her.

She caught a glimpse of the man and thought he looked tall. He seemed to be sprinting.

His body shattered her windshield, so she never saw his face.

Many drivers have close calls: A pedestrian runs across the street at night. A bicyclist changes lanes without warning. Someone steps off a curb into traffic.

“How many times have you gone down the road and said, ‘I didn’t even see that person’?” says Fairfax County police sergeant Edgar Wimberly.

When a car and a person collide, it’s often assumed the driver is at fault. Drivers have lots of distractions. Cars are bigger and move faster than pedestrians.

An Inova Regional Trauma Center report on pedestrian injury says that in nearly half of the 3,118 pedestrian crashes in Northern Virginia from 1999 to 2003, drivers didn’t violate traffic laws.

Drivers weren’t charged in most of the 16 pedestrian fatalities in DC last year. Pedestrian error accounted for 10 of the 15 fatalities in Montgomery County in 2004 and 11 of the 13 fatalities in 2003. All 15 pedestrian deaths in Prince George’s County in 2004 were the fault of the pedestrian.

A collision with a pedestrian or bicyclist can be especially graphic. There’s often very little separating a driver from the person who’s been hit.

“It’s more personal,” says detective Bruce Werts, a member of Montgomery County’s collision-reconstruction unit. “There are times you might be a foot from each other, looking at each other.”

Drivers who are at fault in a collision are left with the guilt of knowing they caused an injury or death. They face traffic violations and possible criminal charges.

Innocent drivers such as El Sawi may be haunted by lingering questions: Why was that person there at that moment? What if I hadn’t stopped to run that errand?

“It doesn’t matter how many times we tell them they did nothing wrong,” says detective Nate Ratnofsky, a former member of the Montgomery County unit. “They still have to live the rest of their lives knowing they killed somebody.”

El Sawi got out of her car and saw a body on the pavement. She couldn’t speak. She didn’t remember slamming on the brakes. She didn’t realize she had glass all over her.

A driver who had seen the collision asked if she was okay. “Yeah,” El Sawi said, “but no.” She pointed to the boy.

It took a few minutes to understand what had happened. She started sobbing, then sat down in her car with the door open and put her head between her knees.

The bus driver told El Sawi he’d seen everything. “There was nothing you could have done,” he said. A police officer told her the collision didn’t appear to be her fault, but they’d need to investigate.

A paramedic asked El Sawi if she was injured. “Not physically,” she said. She described what had happened: He hit the windshield with his shoulder and went over the top of the car. He had landed in the opposing lane of traffic.

El Sawi learned that the teen, who had been in foster care, was part of a church youth group called the Christian Soldiers. He was staying with relatives in Sandy Spring and attending Sherwood High School. He was turning his life around.

The group was getting together that day at Jerome Williams’s house, near the bus stop. Williams, a former professional basketball player, was helping keep Anthony and the others busy during the summer. That day they were working on designing a go-cart track. Williams was cooking breakfast for Anthony, who was eager to get there.

Anthony’s cousin, who had come off the same bus and crossed the street before him, went to tell Williams what had happened.

Williams was talking to Anthony after the accident. He told El Sawi that Anthony was conscious and would be taken to the hospital by helicopter.

A witness heard one of the teen’s relatives ask police, “Aren’t you going to arrest her?”

Even when there are witnesses and a situation seems clear-cut, police usually can’t say much to comfort a driver on the side of the road. They can’t tell someone he or she wasn’t at fault.

A news report may indicate that a driver hasn’t been charged or that speed or alcohol wasn’t a factor, but charges can come later. Officers reconstruct fatal collisions and examine blood, clothing, paint chips, and other evidence. The driver often is left wondering.

Even if a pedestrian crossed illegally, a driver may be considered a “contributor” to a collision. Maybe the driver had a headlight out or wasn’t wearing glasses. Maybe the driver could have avoided the crash if she hadn’t been going 48 miles per hour in a 35-mph zone. Investigators can analyze walking rates and other data to try to determine whether a crash would likely have occurred at a lower speed.

Montgomery County police investigated a collision in Gaithersburg last year in which a teenage boy on a bike crossed against the “don’t walk” sign and was struck and killed by a driver.

“This lady was as distraught as you could be,” says detective Barry Robinson. It took Robinson an hour and a half to interview the driver—he had to give her breaks to catch her breath.

There were 90 feet of skid marks on the road. “All the witnesses see that and think, ‘Oh, she was flying,’ ” he says. “But it turns out she wasn’t at fault at all.”

While officers pieced together the collision, the driver kept calling. “It’s still under investigation,” Robinson would tell her. It was nearly two months before she knew she wouldn’t be charged.

El Sawi wanted to stay busy. She visited her daughter later that day as planned. Her grandchildren would be a good distraction.

Her son drove her to Yorktown. She cried a lot in the car. “Mom,” he said, “you’ve gone over it in your head and it was an accident, and you know it was an accident.”

El Sawi and her children didn’t talk much about the crash that weekend. She helped her daughter paint her living room. They discussed her son’s wedding. “I probably blocked it out,” she says. “Consciously or subconsciously.”

She went back to IBM on Monday. Her boss suggested she take time off, but she had always been able to bury herself in her work—a pattern that had developed after her father was killed in a car accident when she was 25. “It became my way of coping,” she says.

After the accident with Anthony Benson, she would work late, then stay up past midnight watching movies. She had toothaches from grinding her teeth. Her neck and shoulders felt stiff.

She was alone in the evenings at her home in Highland in Howard County. Her husband, a retired senior government analyst, was in Cairo, where he spent half of each year. He’d had a liver transplant in 1999 after waiting for eight years. They kept an apartment in Cairo, and El Sawi took long trips to see him.

It wasn’t her husband’s nature to dwell on things; he focused on the facts. When she called him in Cairo, he listened and empathized. “You know you did everything you could,” he’d tell her. “There’s not much you could have done that was any different, so you accept it and move on.”

Early that week, El Sawi heard that the young man she’d hit had made it through the weekend. He had a head injury but was coherent.

Maybe he’ll be okay, she thought.

You don’t have to be driving fast to kill someone. Most pedestrian fatalities occur when drivers are going 20 to 40 mph, but a collision at even 10 mph—a common speed around crosswalks—can be deadly.

“It’s the way you hit them sometimes that causes the fatality, rather than the speed,” assistant US attorney John Soroka says. “It’s just the way they fall.”

When reserve traffic officer Joe Pozell was hit by a car in Georgetown in May 2005—an incident that got a lot of publicity—the young driver had been making a left turn at a low speed. Police say Pozell backed into the path of her vehicle. He rolled up onto the left fender and off, hitting his head on the ground. He wasn’t thrown by the vehicle.

“He was directing traffic, and she was proceeding along with the proper light,” Soroka says. “There just wasn’t a lot of blame on anybody.”

Pedestrians don’t usually have time to brace themselves by protecting their heads. They may freeze in place, realizing they’re about to be struck. “A lot of times, you get that deer-in-the-headlights look,” says detective Werts. “You’d be surprised how that sticks with people.”

Research shows that it takes a driver anywhere from half a second to five seconds to react and start braking, depending on the circumstances. According to accident-reconstruction expert Jeff Muttart, drivers looking in their rearview mirrors may require an additional three-fourths of a second to respond to a hazard. A driver dialing a cell phone may take an extra two seconds.

“If you could have every driver respond three-fourths of a second faster, you’d reduce the number of crashes by more than 80 percent,” says Muttart, who runs the Accident Dynamics Research Center in Connecticut.

Muttart’s research has shown that if a driver is going 35 mph—about 51 feet a second—and a pedestrian walks into the road midblock in a well-lit area at night, the average driver will take 2.1 seconds to respond. That driver would need about 170 feet—nearly half the length of a football field—to avoid a crash.

“If you have a pedestrian wearing black clothing at night,” says Muttart, “the average response time is no response at all.”

Anthony Benson died of head injuries five days after he was struck. El Sawi was numb.

“I was still in shock,” she says. “Gradually, I think, your mind accepts what it can take.”

The teen’s death was the ninth pedestrian fatality in Montgomery County that year—three times the number of fatalities at the same time the year before. The police already had told El Sawi that no charges would be filed. She was surprised that her insurance covered the funeral expenses. Her adjuster told her that Anthony’s family appreciated the help.

A workforce and youth-development specialist, El Sawi had worked on safety-education programs early in her career and helped write tips for pedestrians. When she lived in DC’s Logan Circle neighborhood, she worried about her kids crossing the street. She got irritated by doctors and nurses who stepped into traffic in front of the Baltimore hospital where she took her husband. She hadn’t thought about someone coming out in front of a bus.

She found herself asking, why, why, why? “You just don’t have the answer,” she says. “It’s not there. It’s not to know.”

Her insurance adjuster told her that the teen’s birth mother had donated his organs. That comforted El Sawi. It was because of an organ donor that she still had her husband.

She thought about contacting Anthony’s mother but worried that some of his relatives might try to profit from the accident. Her sister had been sued after car accidents. El Sawi had watched enough legal shows on television to know that even a frivolous lawsuit could do a lot of damage.

She worried that if she apologized, it might be taken the wrong way. “If you’re not guilty,” El Sawi asked the insurance adjuster, “what do you say?”

Drivers are usually advised not to contact the person they hit or that individual’s relatives. Even if drivers aren’t ticketed, they risk a civil lawsuit. What seems like an expression of sympathy might be viewed as an admission of guilt.

El Sawi’s insurance adjuster told her she’d need to be cautious if she called Anthony’s mother. She could say, “I’m sorry for the loss of your son,” but not much more. El Sawi didn’t know what to do.

Sometimes the victims reach out to the drivers. While riding his bike on a winding road in Great Falls, Paul Thomas—not his real name—slid on wet pavement and crossed into the path of a Jeep driven by a teenage girl. She was coming around a bend, in the opposite direction, at a reasonable speed and didn’t see him.

Thomas spent six days on life support and 1½ months in the hospital. He had eight fractured vertebrae and a third-degree burn from the undercarriage of her Jeep. It was weeks before he remembered who he was.

Six months later, he called the girl and met her and her mother for coffee. He knew the girl was probably struggling with what she’d done and with the guilt. He understood why he hadn’t heard from her—the legal concerns made it too risky.

“I wanted to show her that not only had I lived—but I was fine,” says Thomas, 35.

The young driver told Thomas that at the scene of the accident another cyclist had yelled, “You’ve killed him! You’ve killed him!” She was so distraught she put off college for a semester.

“It wasn’t anyone’s fault,” Thomas told her.

Meg Owens—not her real name—was driving in her Falls Church neighborhood six years ago when an 11-year-old girl named Kelly bicycled down a steep hill and slid into the side of Owens’s minivan. It was a short distance from both of their homes.

Owens got out and saw Kelly, who was wearing a helmet, lying on the ground. Blood was coming from her mouth. The van’s side mirror was dangling.

“I don’t remember at what points I cried and at what points I was kind of frozen,” says Owens, who has two young sons.

When Kelly’s mother arrived at the scene, Owens recognized her from the pool; she’d bought her son a tricycle at Kelly’s family’s yard sale.

Kelly had to have been on the wrong side of the street, Owens told herself. Friends and neighbors reassured her that it wasn’t her fault. A few days after Kelly died, Owens and her husband walked over to see the girl’s parents.

Kelly’s father says he was nervous to meet Owens. He hadn’t been able to sleep since losing his daughter. He didn’t know what he’d say. He knew there were wet leaves on the road and that bushes on the corner made it hard for drivers to see. He knew his daughter hadn’t been riding a bike on her own for very long.

“Don’t worry—it’s all right,” he told Owens. “We don’t hold you responsible. It was an accident.”

He realized that getting angry wouldn’t bring his daughter back. “It wasn’t going to help to blame someone who’d just been in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he says. He and his wife gave Owens a hug.

Owens still has the sympathy cards neighbors and strangers sent after the accident. “It could have been any one of us,” one reads, “any mother, any father, any good person.”

For the first few months, El Sawi thought about the accident every day. She would pass a bus and wonder if something was waiting to hit her.

She had always been a workaholic who felt guilty if she didn’t work weekends; now she had trouble concentrating. She wasn’t taking care of her garden. She stopped going out as much in the evenings.

Her son was getting married in October, so El Sawi threw herself into wedding preparations. She and a friend went shopping for a dress.

She drove a different route to work and noticed signs she hadn’t paid attention to before: drive with care, walk with caution. Three weeks after the accident, she drove down New Hampshire Avenue, the street where it had happened. “I forced myself to do it,” says El Sawi. “You sort of grit your teeth and do what you have to do.” She saw flowers marking the site. She cried and kept going.

She wanted to remember every detail. Reassurance from others helped but wasn’t enough. She had to prove to herself she’d done everything she could.

“You’re just trying to probe your memory,” she says, “your brain, your eyes.” She’d ask herself if there was anything she had missed. Had she been playing with the radio or fiddling with her cell phone?

“I went over that and over that,” says El Sawi, 59. “You can tell your intellect, and your intellect can say, ‘Yes, you’re right, that’s the way it is,’ but your emotions have to follow.”

As she drove, El Sawi noticed a curve in the road she hadn’t noticed before. She realized she’d gone around a slight bend before the accident and up a small hill. That helped explain why she hadn’t had more warning.

The accident replayed in her mind. The hardest image to deal with was the one of the young man sprinting. Her kids had run track in school, so she’d recognized the way his feet and legs were positioned.

Was he just running full blast, or had he seen her and tried to get out of the way?

Officer Wimberly says drivers aren’t taught to look for pedestrians. They look for brake lights in front of them.

“You have people who drive with their knees or put their makeup on or drink coffee or work on their laptop,” he says. “When pedestrians come into this environment, they’re totally ignored.”

Drivers know they’re supposed to stop at crosswalks, but most collisions happen midblock. Some streets don’t offer pedestrians many safe places to cross, and sometimes walkers are impatient. Wimberly says drivers have to be prepared for pedestrians who aren’t thinking, and vice versa.

DC police lieutenant John Kutniewski says he’s surprised there aren’t more fatalities downtown. “You can’t drive down K Street or L Street without five people crossing in front of you . . . and they all expect you to stop. They’re late to work, and they’re going to cross whenever they feel like crossing.”

From a legal standpoint, pedestrians have little to fear. The penalty for crossing illegally—jaywalking—is rarely enforced.

Montgomery County police were still on the scene of a fatal pedestrian collision near Northwest High School in Germantown two years ago when they noticed other students crossing in the same unsafe way as the girl who’d been killed.

At one point last year, officers went to Silver Spring and handed everyone who jaywalked a pamphlet about pedestrian safety. One officer handed the same woman three or four.

“People say, ‘Why don’t you fight real crime?’ ” says detective Brent Kearney. “I tell them, ‘Do you know what a person looks like after they’ve been hit by a car doing 40 miles an hour?’ ”

El Sawi realized early on that most people didn’t want to hear the details about what had happened. She talked to her sister and sent long e-mails to friends—writing helped her sort through things—but she could tell the topic made some people uncomfortable. “I’m sorry to hear that,” they’d say, and then change the subject.

One DC driver says she didn’t get much sympathy after she hit a cyclist in her college town. The cyclist had crossed against the light. The driver, then 22, slammed on her brakes but couldn’t avoid the woman.

“If I was a cyclist and I said I got hit by a car, people would say, ‘Oh, my God, that must have been scary!’ ” she says. “When I say I hit a cyclist, they look at me like ‘What were you doing? Why did you do that?’ The burden of proving my innocence is always on me.”

When her husband struck and killed someone lying on a dark highway three years ago, Laura Smith—not her real name—avoided bringing up the accident with anyone she wasn’t close to. She had been in the passenger seat. The man, who turned out to be a teenager with marijuana in his system, hadn’t tried to get out of the way. Some said it was a suicide.

“When somebody dies, you don’t want anything to do with it,” says Smith, a lawyer who lives in DC. When she did tell the story, she shared the details—the man looked like a bag in the road until he lifted his head and looked at Smith and her husband. By then it was too late.

She wanted friends to understand that it was timing and bad luck.

“We want to believe that if we follow the rules, nobody should get hurt,” says psychologist Ed Hickling, coauthor of Overcoming the Trauma of Your Motor Vehicle Accident. “But all it may take is someone stepping out in front of you, and your ideas of safety and control are shattered.”

Hickling has found that drivers who didn’t feel responsible for a crash are at greater risk of developing posttraumatic stress disorder than those who did feel at fault. Someone who falls asleep at the wheel knows what they can do to prevent future accidents. Innocent drivers, Hickling says, realize they’re at the mercy of the universe.

That’s one reason drivers such as El Sawi wrack their brains for answers. “We want to make sense of things that don’t make any sense,” says Hickling.

Laura Smith had trouble driving through Rock Creek Park after her collision. A deer on the side of the road can still make her heart pound. She can see her husband trying to stop the car and hear him screaming, “No! No! No!”

She had a curiosity about the teenager her husband hit, so she looked up articles about the accident. She felt haunted. “I’d be walking up the stairs getting ready to go to bed and he’d be standing at the top of my stairs,” she says. She’d see him lift his head and look at her.

Gwen El Sawi went to Cairo in December 2004, five months after the accident. Pedestrians have the right of way there, but drivers don’t like to stop. Anybody can pop out at any time.

“I had to tell my body—not just my mind and my hands—to relax about every half block,” she says.

She would start thinking about the man whose truck had collided with her father’s car 33 years earlier. Her father—who’d taught her to drive near their farm in Minnesota—had run a stop sign after having a heart attack or stroke.

“As a child of somebody who dies or as a parent, you’re not worrying about the other person,” she says.

Now she understood: “I can see now how that would have affected him—you see that a car’s not going to stop, and there’s nothing you can do.”

By February, there were days when El Sawi didn’t think about the accident. She still had to go to work. She still had to take out the garbage. She had been in an accident 24 years earlier—trees blocked her view of a stoplight, and she ran into another car—and it had taken her nine months to feel comfortable driving again. Now she was more resilient. “Ultimately, your head takes over and you put your emotions into slots,” says El Sawi, who refers to Anthony as “the young man.” “It doesn’t mean you don’t feel sad about it.”

Her insurance company sent her a letter saying the case was closed.

That winter she had a graphic flashback and didn’t know what had triggered it: “It was like everything happening all over again.” That made her think about soldiers coming back from war. She wondered if maybe she hadn’t yet felt the full effects of the accident.

Images and memories from traumatic events such as a pedestrian collision can linger for years.

Drivers who made a mistake that contributed to the collision may carry a heavy burden. “We do not think of ourselves as people who kill people,” says Hickling. “We’re nice people. We’re kind. It’s an overwhelming position to find yourself in.”

For Annie Binder, who hit a bicyclist more than 20 years ago, the “little nugget of sadness” is familiar now. She takes care of her two young children and designs jewelry in her Northwest DC studio. But she thinks about the accident every day.

She was 16, driving a used Saab her grandparents had given her. She was running late that day for her new volunteer job with the Miami police and listening to Wang Chung on the radio.

She saw a man riding his bike slowly. She thought he would see her, but he wasn’t paying attention. Her brakes locked. The man wasn’t wearing a helmet. He went through her windshield, and his head hit hers.

Says Binder: “I had his blood on my forehead.”

The accident is a part of Binder now. She took part in someone’s death, she says, and she can’t forget that.

“Over and over again, probably thousands of times, I have asked myself, ‘How could this happen? Why me? Why would I ever want to experience joy after having done this to someone?’ ”

She was charged with speeding. Her parents hired a lawyer. The case was dismissed.

“It didn’t make me feel less responsible or less involved,” says Binder, 38. “I was going too fast, I didn’t slow down early enough, and I swerved in the wrong direction.”

She sold her car. She asked for a single room during her freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania and ate meals alone. She’d tell people she met, “Just so you know, I killed somebody last year.”

Four years after her accident, as the devastation was starting to ease, Binder’s father was hit and killed while riding his bike. “The coincidence was unfathomable,” she says.

It wasn’t clear who was at fault. Her father had neurological problems, and Binder thinks he swerved his bicycle in the wrong direction. She told herself his death wasn’t punishment. She struggled with the images. “I know physically exactly what happened to my father—the bike rolling off the windshield,” she says. “I know the process.” Binder felt bad for the driver. She thought, He has no idea what he’s in for.

Binder traveled, went to graduate school, and got married, but her own accident stayed with her. Therapists were just learning about posttraumatic stress disorder and didn’t know how to treat her.

For years, Binder was depressed and easily frustrated. She felt different from other people: “Nobody in my new-moms club had this happen.” She was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, which she partially attributes to the stress. She had trouble parenting toddlers—she’d jump if her daughter said, “Boo!”

Binder started seeing a new psychotherapist 3½ years ago, 17 years after the accident. Therapy is helping her understand her grief and anger. If she sees a bicyclist near her car or a commercial that reminds her of the crash, she can recognize why she feels anxious and tell herself to calm down.

It’s still hard for her to pass the accident site when she goes back home to Miami: “My life just stopped and changed on that day.”

Assistant US attorney John Soroka, who handles DC’s vehicular-homicide cases, says a lot of pedestrian collisions are tough calls.

It’s Soroka’s job to investigate the circumstances of a death and, when warranted, submit evidence to a grand jury, which decides whether to bring criminal charges. “In most of these cases, we’re not prosecuting people because they’re evil or bad,” he says.

Negligent homicide, DC’s least severe criminal charge for drivers involved in fatal collisions, requires proof that a person drove in a “careless, reckless, or negligent manner.”

What’s careless in one situation may not be in another. Most drivers occasionally take their eyes off the road. Could a momentary lapse in judgment land a driver in jail?

“The pedestrian cases we’ve prosecuted are pretty egregious,” Soroka says.

But a driver could be charged with negligent homicide for hitting a pedestrian while going ten mph over the speed limit. “If it’s icy out, that could be incredibly dangerous,” he says. “At 3 am on an empty road, there’s not as much danger.”

Cell-phone use could also constitute negligence. In the District, where it’s illegal to drive while using a hand-held phone, a driver who isn’t using a headset and runs into a pedestrian in a crosswalk could face a criminal charge. If a driver is on the phone illegally and hits someone who crossed against a light? That’s different.

Among Soroka’s harder decisions: A woman driving in Northwest DC two years ago made a left turn onto Wisconsin Avenue just before sunset and struck two pedestrians in a crosswalk. The driver didn’t see them because the sun’s glare blocked her view. One of the pedestrians died; the driver wasn’t charged.

“The law says there are some things that are just accidents—not crimes,” Soroka says. “That’s a tough thing for families to understand sometimes.”

El Sawi believed there was a lesson she was supposed to learn. She thought there was a reason her accident happened that way, and one day she might know what it was.

For the first year after the crash, she drove on “red alert.” She craned her neck when near a bus so she could see where passengers were going. She saw pedestrians and thought about how far away they were. Sometimes when she went down New Hampshire Avenue, she’d think of Anthony’s mother.

One morning, El Sawi saw a man trying to cross the street in front of her without a light or crosswalk. She couldn’t tell if he was going to slow down or walk into the path of her Camry. She thought, “Is this car a magnet?”

When she sees pedestrians crossing in unsafe places, she shakes her head. She sometimes draws a pretend magic circle around them—something a friend once told her to do—to keep them safe.

El Sawi couldn’t get angry at Anthony. She knew that teens think they’re invincible. “Haven’t we all jaywalked?” she says. “Haven’t we all not gone to the crosswalk?” When the young man ran across the street without looking, she told herself, he was doing what young people do.

One DC driver started having panic attacks a year after hitting a cyclist who’d crossed illegally. She’d had to step over the cyclist, who had blood behind her head, to get out of the car. “Every thought process stops except for thinking that you’ve killed someone,” she says. The cyclist’s injuries weren’t life-threatening.

This driver gets panic attacks about once a month while she’s driving. Her heart pounds, and she has trouble breathing. For relief, she snaps a rubber band on her wrist or does breathing exercises.

In the days following her accident, El Sawi would tell people, “He ran out in front of the car, and I killed him.”

Today she would describe it differently: “He ran in front of the car, the car hit him, and he died.”

The words you use frame how you think, she says, so she changed hers: “I think that happens with reflection, over time.”

She rarely has flashbacks.

“You have to believe that if you could have done better, you would have. That’s how I get through it.”