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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 ...

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.

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