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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 ...

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.”

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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.

“Everybody looks at us and says, ‘Zach is still here, he’s doing so well,’ ” Ms. Judd said. “You know, ‘We’re moving on, blah blah blah.’ Without looking at us and saying, ‘Holy crap, this has really affected their lives.’ ”

Grande Prairie is northwestern Alberta’s biggest city, an energy outpost of 55,000 people and growing. Big-box stores, hotels and suburban houses are plunked down amid farms, forests and oil and gas wells. It’s part small town, part boom town, about 460 kilometres northwest of Edmonton, and for all the newcomers there is a core of lifelong residents, many proudly blue-collar, among whom word travels fast. When tragedy befalls “The Comp” – the lone public high school – it befalls Grande Prairie.

Zach was born in Grande Prairie and has spent much of his life here, the son of a Guyanese-Canadian father and an aboriginal mother in an overwhelmingly white town. He was a dynamo from day one. “He hopped into my dad’s motorhome at the age of 2 and rolled it down the road, smashed into a brand-new Ford pickup truck. Because he was ‘driving,’ ” Ms. Judd recalled. By that age, he was riding a bike without training wheels. His older brother Louis watched Barney & Friends; Zach watched Power Rangers .

Zach struggled in school but found refuge in sports. Among his fellow Warriors, he was closest with Vince – both shy, football-mad teens from working-class families. And the boys couldn’t say no to a Friday-night party in October hosted by a girl whose mom, Shauna L’Hirondelle, was out of town.

But it was a brief stop. They are believed to have arrived around 10:30 p.m., and they left around midnight – Matt had a 1 a.m. curfew and gave the other four a ride.

It’s unclear what happened next. The night’s events have taken on a life of their own, the product of, at best, educated guesses. The Crown’s case, including all police evidence, was laid out at a preliminary hearing but is covered by a publication ban. The Globe and Mail can’t publish what police say occurred, just the charges they laid against Brenden Holubowich.

This much is known: The boys piled into Matt’s Mercury Sable, a car that he had bought after a summer working with a local mason and that was older than the five football players it was carrying. In Alberta, 16-year-olds can drive under a graduated licence, so long as they have no alcohol in their system and as many seatbelts as passengers. According to Ms. L’Hirondelle and Mr. Gilson, Matt had not been drinking. Vince, Tanner and Walter ended up in the back seat, while Zach took the front passenger seat. His mother suspects why.

“I’m sure they did the whole ‘shotgun’ thing. I’m sure they all raced for the car. Or at least him and Vince,” Ms. Judd said. “Because that was Zach’s big thing.”

Matt steered the Mercury out of the L’Hirondelle driveway and turned right, heading downhill. But he pulled in again, this time at a business’s parking lot about 250 metres from the home, to make a U-turn – it’s unclear why. At the L’Hirondelle house, other party-goers saw a truck roar over the crest of the hill, toward the Mercury. Then the sickening impact: The truck’s front end collided squarely with the Mercury’s rear driver’s side. Each vehicle rolled, carving out strips of pavement – scars that remain on the road today.

The Mercury came to rest in the south ditch, its back end torn apart. Vince lay next to it, lifeless. Walter and Tanner had been flung into the bush, out of sight. Fire crews thought, at first, that there had been only three people in the car. Matt sat in the driver’s seat, slumped over, his head against Zach’s chest, rising and falling as the injured boy gasped for air. The truck stopped far beyond the boys’ car. Police say Mr. Holubowich fled the scene.

Word spread. A text message went to Mr. Gilson’s youngest son, who was in Grade 12 and on the football team. He stirred his dad, who headed to the crash site. People rushed from nearby homes and cars pulled over. Among those drivers was Louis, then 16, who ran to the Mercury and grabbed his brother’s hand. Zach tried to talk but couldn’t, coughing up blood instead. Louis held his little brother’s hand before he was whisked away by emergency crews.

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.

He was surrounded by cards, stuffed animals and memorabilia, including a football signed by the Edmonton Eskimos. Money poured in: A trust fund was opened and eventually raised about $150,000 for the five families, plus a separate one for Zach, the amount of which has been kept private. “It was overwhelming,” Ms. Judd said.

At first, doctors said Zach could be in a coma for three months, but in early November, 11 days after the horrific crash, he opened his eyes.

Rehabilitation began soon afterward and included simple cognitive tests. In one, nurses gave Zach letters. He would arrange them slowly: Z – A – C – H. One nurse would gently remove the H, and replace it with a K. Zach would swap the letters again. Finally, Ms. Judd intervened, telling the nurse how to spell his name correctly.

Everyone had been talking to Zach, who was awake but seemingly miles away, occasionally muttering “mom” or “grandma.” He hadn’t responded to questions. At one point, about a month after the accident, Mr. Gilson – a regular visitor – asked whether Zach wanted to make a phone call.

“Sure,” Zach replied.

His mother was awestruck. “It was overnight,” she said. “One day he wasn’t talking, the next day you couldn’t shut him up.”

His speech improved as he emerged from what is called post-traumatic amnesia. He told the story about the horses. He moved with a walker, then a belt attached to an aide worker, before finally being able to walk on his own.

I first met Zach in January at a McDonald’s next to the hospital. His mother cringed whenever he strayed too far from a wall, in case he needed to throw out an arm to steady himself. He spoke in short sentences, if at all, but smiled often. His playful personality was stirring again. He talked about sports and music, and was optimistic about his recovery. He wore his black Nikes with pink soles – his brother had washed them off, in the snow, after the crash.

Doctors warned Ms. Judd that Zach would not be the same, and it was bound to frustrate him. His frontal-lobe injury would compound matters, making him more aggressive. She was also warned about the onset of survivor’s guilt.

“Life is going to carry on as normal,” Ms. Judd told her son in hospital.

“It’s not going to carry on as normal,” he replied.

She smiled. “As normal as can be.”

Zach was starting over. He needed a new e-mail and a new Facebook page, because his brain damage made him forget every password he had ever had. Once he had dreamed of playing university football – the receiver and punt returner retained a heady memory of a kick he had run back for a touchdown in his final game – but now he set himself a new goal: to be a gym teacher.

On Feb. 29, Zach hugged staff at the hospital and left. While his mom finished packing, he headed to a barbershop. He wanted it buzzed, close-cropped. The barber objected, leaving the top longer to cover the scars.

It was these sorts of reminders that set Zach off. “The accident ruined my life,” he said soon after, wolfing down a Taco Bell burrito at a nearby mall before departing for Grande Prairie. Between bites, he waxed philosophical: “I was an atheist before the accident, but now I kinda believe in God. God kinda saved my life.”

Months later, he would revise that. God couldn’t have saved him. “I don’t think that’s a good enough reason. Then I think, ‘I don’t want to be dead, but since the rest of them are dead, then it’s only fair I’m dead too.’ ” The others had “more going for them,” he figured. “One of them should have been, like, alive instead of me right now,” he said, adding: “I wouldn’t have felt anything anyways.”

There’s a cold reality to Zach’s second life. He is no longer a competitive athlete, not even a fresh-from-the-hospital survivor; just a 16-year-old who struggles in school and quit his part-time jobs, one of them pumping gas. Strangers still ask him whether he’s the boy from the wreck, and don’t shy away from sharing their thoughts.

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.

“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.”

What he hasn’t lost is the support of the five families. To them, he is a figure just this side of godliness. He has been there from the moment they knew their boys were gone. He administered the trust fund, shielded them from public attention and got his team back on the field.

“The change is probably great for him after the stress of last year,” Ms. Wilson said. “I also think he’s missed.”

“We see a lot of greatness in him,” said Darren Davidson, Walter’s stepdad. “I will go to my grave knowing he did the best he could do at the time, given what he had to work with.”

The families didn’t know their sons’ accused killer, but they began with compassion for a young man not so much older than their sons. At the public memorial, Mr. Davidson asked the crowd to keep six families in their prayers – those of the dead, the Judds and the Holubowiches. That graciousness has faded, though, as the court case has dragged on.

The 16 charges Mr. Holubowich faces include dangerous driving causing death and impaired driving, as well as fleeing the scene. No one has disputed that he was the driver of the pickup truck, but he has been fighting the charges.

“It’s a real shame how the world has gone so far to the fact that you can’t stand up and be a man and just admit to what you did wrong,” Mr. Deller, Matt’s father, said outside the court.

The first time most saw him was in August at the preliminary hearing. He arrived clean-shaven and in a black suit, surrounded by family. His supporters took one side of the court; Ms. Judd and the other parents took the other, clad in bright orange. The crowds, similar in size, did not speak to each other.

It was at that hearing that his lawyer asked for his client’s licence back. Mr. Holubowich lives in Wembley, a hamlet just west of Grande Prairie. The judge agreed with the defence lawyer’s argument that Mr. Holubowich has been co-operative and needs to drive to get to his job as a heavy-equipment mechanic, and reinstated his licence. The Crown did not strongly object.

The move blindsided the families. Zach, who turned 16 in January, still has not been cleared by doctors to take the wheel, and won’t until next year at the earliest. The system took a more liberal tack with the accused. “That was a cheap shot at us,” Ms. Judd said.

The Holubowich family has avoided the public eye, but has many supporters. Some have said the boys cut Mr. Holubowich off, and have claimed the boys were “stunting” (in an aging front-wheel-drive car) and that he has been made a scapegoat. The publication ban prevents inclusion of what police say.

The family sent a statement to the local newspaper, the Daily Herald Tribune, after the crash. It extended sympathies to the families of the boys, including Zach, and thanked all those who had reserved judgment or supported them. “Your bravery and compassion and kindness in this difficult time for so many people is truly appreciated. We humbly pray that God’s grace and love will support this community.”

No matter the outcome of the trial, parents hope the crash will change sensibilities in Grande Prairie, with its history of drunk driving: a discomfiting 494 cases last year, which is nonetheless an improvement on previous years. Mr. Gilson – a Mormon who has never had a drink in his life – said that while no one in Grande Prairie would actually condone drunk driving, there is an “undercurrent of acceptability.”

Walter’s father, Mr. Wilkins, said that as a young man he had driven after drinking – that many in the community have. Zach’s own mother lost her licence for impaired driving in 1999, and Ms. Judd has also lost friends to crashes where drinking was a factor.

“I would ride with impaired drivers on a very regular basis, but not drive myself,” Ms. Judd remembered. “Not that it’s an excuse at all.”

At an arraignment this month, Mr. Holubowich’s lawyer sought and received a delay; the Crown, meanwhile, has proposed a plea deal. When court proceedings began, each family came to watch. This month, about half did.

If Mr. Holubowich is found guilty, there is little likelihood of a lengthy prison term. The Crown says past impaired-driving sentences vary wildly – and, in particular, do not tend to be affected by whether one person died or, in this case, four.

Long delays and the prospect of short sentences have exasperated the families.

“You just get victimized over and over, and over, and over,” said Ms. Wilson, Vince’s mother. She is torn: She would like to see officials throw the book at Mr. Holubowich but also sympathizes – a harsh sentence won’t bring Vince back. “I think everyone’s done stupid stuff in their life and not had to pay forever,” she said. “It’s a no-win for everybody.”

None is angrier than Zach himself, who pins the blame squarely on Mr. Holubowich. The crash has reshaped Zach: On the one hand, he is more outgoing, more of a joker and, self-admittedly, more of a flirt, but he is also frustrated and forgetful. He is deaf in one ear. He is barred from playing sports, until at least next year, but is serving as an assistant coach with the Warriors. He is provided class notes in advance. Other students tease him, saying he blames his brain injury for his poor grades. He has given up on becoming a gym teacher. Now he hopes simply to graduate, and be a personal trainer.

I asked him once what his victim impact statement to a court might include.

“Maybe I’ll tell them what it did to me, in person,” he said. “And also how it made me feel and my family feel. And friends, I guess. I was in the hospital for five months, and then due to my brain damage, from the car accident, I got mad easy, say the doctors. So I was kind of a dick when I got back,” he said, pausing. “What’s the question again?”

His family plans to launch a civil suit. The insurance battle has barely begun. Matt’s father, who had included his son, the boys’ driver, on his insurance plan, sheepishly encouraged the other families to find lawyers. Joined by grief in their sons’ death, they may find themselves battling each other soon over insurance claims.

Ms. Judd had suggested some sort of team fundraiser on the anniversary. The school, back when Mr. Gilson was still principal, shot it down. “He said there’s been so much tragedy beyond [the crash],” Ms. Judd said. As it stands, Tanner’s mother booked the football field for Saturday night. Parents and supporters will meet at 11 p.m. for a candlelight vigil. Zach will go.

Ms. Judd may or may not be there – she is due to give birth to her fourth child, a girl, any day now. She and her live-in partner found out just before Zach was released from the hospital; her first due date was the crash anniversary.

Zach joked with his mother that, had he died, she would be having a replacement baby.

On March 1, the day after he returned to Grand Prairie, Zach and his mother went for a drive. Neither had been to the crash site since that dreadful night. Snow covered the ground. They pulled into a nearby lot, the same one Matt made his last turn on, and crossed the highway.

Zach’s memory was completely blank; Ms. Judd’s was a blur. They were drawn to four white crosses in the ditch, with wilted flowers, faded cards and weather-worn baseball caps piled around them. The crosses had been cut in Ms. L’Hirondelle’s workshop in the wee morning hours after the crash, each with orange lettering and the boys’ initials: MD, VS, TH and WBW.

“Mom, we were pulling out here?” Zach asked, his brow furrowed.

“I don’t know,” Ms. Judd said. “I guess so.”

That night the truck had come from the east, where the hill crests about 250 metres away – traffic from that direction is not easily seen from the crash site. Ms. Judd found herself turned around, thinking the truck had come from the other direction, thinking there had been no hill. “It’s kind of completely the opposite of what I thought,” she said.

Zach stood, hands tucked in the sleeves of his winter coat. “And we didn’t even see him? Or maybe it’s that we saw him and we thought we had enough time,” he said.

Driving away from the scene, his mother at the wheel, Zach thought briefly about the night on a dark Alberta highway when his friends died. “I just thought, when I saw the crosses, that my cross could be up there,” he said, pausing. “And how lucky I am to have survived.”

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