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  (John Lehmann/Globe Video)


(John Lehmann/Globe Video)


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

“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.

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