Zach Judd awoke, and the memory was clear. He and his brother had been on horseback. It was the sort of sun-soaked ranch day he had dreamed of as a child, when he had wanted to be a cowboy, but his horse bucked him. “I flew off,” the teenager recalled, eyes darting upward, reliving it. “And while I was in the air, it kicked me and hit my face.”
That’s why he was in hospital now, he thought on a chilly day in Edmonton. That must be why all these visitors had been filing into his room, one after another. That’s why his head hurt.
“He was very, very argumentative, and adamant, when he first started talking,” said his mother, Desiree Judd. “That this is what happened.”
It hadn’t happened. His brother is spooked by horses and they haven’t been to that ranch in ages. The memory was a replacement, the creation of a boy’s battered frontal lobe. It filled a void.
The truth: His brother had been there, yes, but there had been no pasture, no horses, no sunlight. There had been only darkness, sirens and a twisting of metal. The car he had been riding in that night, Oct. 21, had collided with a pickup truck, with what police allege was an impaired, reckless driver at the wheel. Four of Zach’s friends were dead – all of them his teammates on the Warriors football team at Grande Prairie Composite High School.
One year later, Zach is trying to remember while many in Grande Prairie strive to forget. It’s as if the residents of an entire Alberta town are shuttling through various stages of grieving, from denial to anger to acceptance, and no one is struggling more than 16-year-old Zach, the car’s sole survivor. He had a cracked skull, damaged brain, torn spleen, punctured lung, broken bones in his ear; he still labours with a short fuse and a patchwork memory, with frustration and guilt. A question recurs: Why me? The other boys – his friends Matthew Deller, 16, Vincent Stover, 16, Walter Borden-Wilkins, 15, and Tanner Hildebrand, 15 – had more going for them than he did, he says quietly. One of them should have survived instead.
Meanwhile, the town’s school board is working to scrub away reminders of the crash. The school called in a trauma expert who had worked at Columbine High School in Colorado, where 13 people were killed in a shooting rampage in 1999, and Bathurst High in New Brunswick, which lost seven students and an adult in a van crash in 2008. In Grande Prairie, the trauma multiplied: Two students committed suicide this spring, unrelated to the crash but sparking rumours of a suicide pact. In the midst of it all, the popular principal and coach who led the town through the tragedies, Rick Gilson, has been reassigned and silenced, himself an unwelcome memory hidden away along with the cards, photos and jerseys.
The other families have laboured too. The four dead, all from blended families, left behind a total of 21 siblings. There were four funerals and a memorial at the local hockey rink. Some parents have put away their son’s possessions; others have built shrines, got tattoos or clad themselves in Warriors garb. After emergency crews had gone, Walter’s mother combed the crash site – and found her son’s tooth. His football ring is still out there, somewhere. “I still miss Walter so much, it just tears me up inside,” said Holly Borden, trembling.
I have visited Grande Prairie regularly over the past year, tracing the fallout of that one traumatic night. The spotlight – TSN covered the Warriors’ next game – has faded. The town is disquieted and divided, grappling not only with grief but with a troubling subtext: a per–capita rate of drunk-driving cases more than triple the national average. A 22-year-old faces 16 charges, including impaired driving, in the truck-car crash, and part of what riles the parents is the fact that he is fighting them; nor did it ease tensions when a judge agreed to restore the young man’s driver’s licence.
This is a story about how a community copes with tragedy – not only immediately, but over time. Who decides what is best remembered, and what is best forgotten? Who determines when it’s finally time to move on? In one terrible instant, four teens were dead. And one survived – forever the focal point, never the same.