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  (John Lehmann/Globe Video)

 

(John Lehmann/Globe Video)

REMEMBRANCE

A night to forget: The survivor of a fatal crash and a city try to recover Add to ...

“I’m not mad that it was him that lived, not mine,” said Ms. Wilson, Vince’s mother. “It is what it is. I’m happy he’s still around. I’m happy his family has him. And I’m happy he’s getting better. I don’t really follow it too much, though. I just, kind of – that’s there, I’m here, and.… ” She didn’t finish.

Mr. Wilkins, Walter’s father, has avoided Zach, so as not to have a constant reminder of the crash. He looks longingly at Ms. Judd, whose son lived, as he mourns his own. “I wish we could swap places, but realistically there’s nothing we can do. I’m glad somebody survived,” Mr. Wilkins said. “I’m glad he doesn’t remember.”

The Comp today is not The Comp of a year ago. There are four students gone and a fifth redoing Grade 11, struggling to pass classes. Mr. Gilson resigned as principal and coach in June, after he accepted a new post as a district principal – a job that had not existed previously. He was then pulled from the spotlight, and told not to speak about the crash.

His supporters are split. Some see the new job as a promotion, others as an unceremonious sidelining for the man who led the school through its crisis, garnering a slew of awards – including NFL Canada’s youth coach of the year. Zach misses him.

Spearheading The Comp’s change in direction was superintendent Carol Ann MacDonald, who had been hired from Nova Scotia. She was in the second month of her first school year when the boys’ car was hit, and she went into crisis mode. A colleague at Bathurst High pointed her toward a trauma consultant called in during that school’s van-crash ordeal. Ms. MacDonald phoned the Alberta-based counsellor, Kevin Cameron, who had also worked at Columbine, a few days after the accident, and since then he has come to Grande Prairie to train teachers in trauma management. His advice: Strip away all reminders of the crash.

Now, visitors are hard-pressed to find any evidence that The Comp was Matt, Vince, Tanner and Walter’s school. An orange W was scraped off the stairs. All the memorabilia sent to the school after the tragedy has been packed away in boxes. When Zach returned to class, there was no assembly, no grand welcome – just a gym class where the one-time athlete struggled to keep his balance.

A year before the crash, a Grade 12 student from The Comp was killed in another accident along the same road. Friends asked why one crash got so much attention, but not the other. And as Zach returned to school, so too did a student blinded by illness. That’s why, in part, the boy from the wreck got no special welcome.

Then there were the suicides. In April, a 15-year-old Comp student killed herself, and another girl – the same age, but in junior high – committed suicide a month later. Neither family thinks their daughter’s death was sparked by the crash. But the school board, with help from Alberta Health Services, investigated reports of a “15 forever” suicide pact. While they found nothing to support it, rumours of the pact reached Zach. After almost dying at that age himself, he couldn’t understand. He still can’t.

The suicides raised red flags, not least because of the crash. “I think what stood out in this particular case was this is a community that has faced a previous loss,” said Kevin Worry, regional director for Alberta Health Services, which boosted mental-health resources in the region afterward.

Ms. MacDonald is preparing for more fallout. “It takes time to go through any major trauma, and everyone grieves at a different pace,” she said.

The tragedies have shaken her new hometown, not just The Comp. “It’s bigger than just one school,” she said. “It’s a community that has gone through many events.”

Mr. Gilson sees it too. “I’ve watched our team, and kids on the team, struggle. I’ve watched kids who’ve never failed a class in their life fail classes,” he said in February. “And all of it’s connected.”

After 23 years at The Comp, he now works in a single-storey district office a kilometre away. After three decades coaching football, he has been relegated to a Warriors assistant. He has taken his new job in stride – whatever is best for the kids, he said – but the crash stays with him, every day. “It’s a growth experience,” he said. “You always reflect on whether you can do more in every situation. There’s still sadness. There’s still a sense of loss. And I think there always will be.”

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