The following is the Globe and Mail’s poignant interview with Zach Judd, the lone survivor of fatal crash that devastated Grande Prairie one year ago.

To view video interview, go here

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.”

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.”

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

Source: The Globe and Mail


Last updated on: 2012-10-24 | Link to this post