Some blame him and his friends, sending messages online saying it was Matt’s U-turn that caused the crash. Zach defends Matt; to do so, he has been piecing together what happened that night, even if he would prefer not to. “I almost died, and four of my friends died,” he said. “So I don’t see why anyone would want to remember that.”
He and his brother Louis don’t talk about the crash. “Every time I bring it up, he, like, gets mad,” Zach said. In fact, Louis was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after that night. Sitting in the family’s kitchen, I once asked his mother whether the crash could affect Louis, with no physical injuries, as much as it would Zach. “Very much so,” she replied.
The parents have felt the sting of blame too, of other residents’ censure. “They try to pass so much judgment on us as parents for allowing our young boys to be out soooo late,” Ms. Judd said, stretching her vowels for effect. “Who doesn’t let their kids out?”
None of the other four boys was taken to hospital. There was no hope. The deputy fire chief on duty said the car’s damage was so extensive that it wouldn’t have mattered whether the boys were wearing seatbelts. He called it the worst night of his career.
The families of the victims, who have grown close since the crash, have coped in a striking variety of ways. They all bought the boys’ championship football rings. Tanner’s mom, Connie Hildebrand-Strong, consistently wears Warriors gear, or one of the many shirts she had made with her son’s image. She had decals made with Tanner’s face for her truck and motorbike. “I told my kids, no one else can go, because I’ve got nothing else to paint,” she said.
Ms. Hildebrand-Strong built a shrine at the precise spot in the bush where her son landed. The shrine still stands, solar lights glowing after dusk. Driving by, Zach said they look like halos. She also has Tanner’s ashes, all six pounds, seven ounces – the same weight as when he was born.
It was the binder of coffin photos that pushed Jenny Wilson over the edge. She was to cremate her son, Vince, and needed to rent a coffin for his funeral. “I’m like, ‘I don’t care, I don’t care, just pick one and it’ll be good enough,’ ” she recalled. Then there were the visits from Vince’s friends – the girls, at least – coming over and taking some of his shirts. And returning weeks later, asking Ms. Wilson to spray her son’s Lacoste cologne on them once more.
Ms. Wilson wears his shirts too, and has tattooed his name across the inside of her right arm. In the living room, next to a big-screen TV, sit some of Vince’s photos, and his ashes. “I’m not going to take his pictures down or put his stuff away, but I’m not going to turn it into a shrine,” she said. “Eventually, there’ll be less and less, right?”
In the months after the crash, Ms. Wilson’s partner, Joe Taniwa, found himself in a heavy mechanics class with the accused. He left immediately. “It just feels like we’ve been robbed,” she said. “Really. That’s what I felt all along. All of us were.”
Leon Deller, Matt’s father, has not returned to his job as a long-haul trucker. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and can’t bear to be away from his family for long. “I’m not really dealing very well,” he said, sighing. Reminders are everywhere: He still goes to see Matt’s younger brother, Chance, play for the Warriors. He has a display case of Matt’s things in his living room and, on his chest, a tattoo of his late son’s face.
At first, Walter’s mother, Holly, would sign into her son’s Facebook account, just to see messages people were leaving. She would click “like” on some. To his friends, it looked as though Walter was approving his own eulogies from the grave. The school asked his mother to stop; she complied, sort of. She can’t bring herself to delete the account.
Aug. 29 would have been Walter’s 16th birthday. The fourth of six children, the young man would be beginning Grade 11. Instead, his parents spent his birthday in court at a hearing for the man accused in the crash that killed their son. “It’s closure,” Ms. Borden said.
None of the parents blame the Judds. But there’s a noticeable distance between the Judds and the other four families. Zach is a living memory of the night that took their sons.