Their mother had just finished a shift at a local restaurant, Padrino’s, one of two jobs she worked to support the boys and their younger sister, Emma. Ms. Judd, 38, kept her cellphone on silent during her shift. When she eventually glanced at the phone, she had 13 missed calls – one from Zach at the party and the rest from Louis, one after the other around midnight.
“My battery was in the red, so when I did try and call him back, I just got a few words out of him and my phone died,” Ms. Judd said. “He was pretty hysterical. ‘Zach was in an accident, it’s really horrible, four boys are dead.’ No more phone.”
Emergency crews cut Zach out of the Mercury. He was flown to Grande Prairie’s hospital before being transferred to Edmonton. He’s still upset that his new Under Armour sweater, bought weeks earlier in San Diego during his first trip outside Canada, was ruined by doctors saving his life. The only thing they left were his shoes, black Nikes with pink soles, filled with blood that had poured down his legs.
Police, by that point, had called Zach’s grandmother, who understood, incorrectly, that he had died. Louis’s friends kept texting him condolences, some refusing to believe that Zach was still alive. Ms. Judd arrived at the scene and was taken to Louis. They followed Zach to the hospital, where staff asked if they could identify which boy was Zach.
“How about the fact he’s black like me,” Louis screamed. “Does that help identify him?”
Football players flocked to the crash site, then to the hospital. Vince’s mom was awakened at 1:45 a.m. by a phone call asking if she had heard from Vince. She hadn’t, and couldn’t reach him. She tried texting him, asking if he was okay, a message she would next see when police gave her Vince’s phone. She still has it; all the parents do. The phones are memorials and time capsules.
Mr. Gilson worked all night, a de facto liaison between the Mounties, the school and the parents. He went with the police to each home. It was the sight of Mr. Gilson the next morning that made Drew Wilkins, Walter’s father, feel his stomach drop.
“I got woken up at 7 in the morning for one of my worst fears – my kid not coming home,” Mr. Wilkins said, his lip quivering. “And he still hasn’t come home.”
When I arrived in Grande Prairie two days after the crash, orange and black ribbons hung everywhere. There was a Friday Night Lights feel to it all, a town fixated on its high-school football team in good times, and now, in tragedy, rallying around it. That evening, a vigil was held at the football field. Hundreds came, wearing orange hoodies, releasing balloons into the black sky, mourning the four dead and praying for Zach’s recovery.
Two days later, the Warriors were back on the field. Mr. Gilson shouted orders to about half his team, the ones who showed up; he forgave the others, but he never considered cancelling. After light walk-throughs and drills, the team ran back inside, helmets in hand, past the parking lot where parents sat nervously in idling cars.
“The best place for these kids all week has been between the white lines,” Mr. Gilson said. “The practice – that’s been their sanctuary.”
They returned to the field a week after the accident, obliterating a rival school 40-0 to earn a spot in the regional championship (which they’d go on to win). The stands were packed and TV lights shined. Louis took up his usual spot on the offensive line, thinking of Zach all the while. Their aunt sold sweatshirts near the back of the south end zone. Tanner’s family set up at midfield, wearing orange shirts with his photo on them, cheering loudly. It was The Comp’s wake.
As a town grieved and cheered, Zach lay in a coma, his mother by his side. She uprooted her life to stay with him in Edmonton, five hours from home. In Grande Prairie, classes resumed and her other two children returned to school. Their grandma cared for them. Ms. Judd wasn’t leaving Zach.