Oct 25, 2012 - PART 3 - A NIGHT TO FORGET: THE SURVIVOR OF A FATAL CRASH AND A CITY TRYING TO RECOVER


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.”

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

Source: The Globe and Mail

 

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