By Dan Morse and Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
As a Montgomery County police captain, Thomas C. Didone has spent countless hours counseling teenagers to drive safely. Last night, he stood before more than 1,000 people gathered on the Damascus High School football field to mourn his 15-year-old son, the latest youth killed in a car driven by a teenager on northern Montgomery's winding roads.
Ryan Didone was riding in a blue Volvo station wagon filled with teenagers, part of a group headed to Burger King after the weekly meeting of a religious youth group Monday night. Suddenly, the wagon veered off Hawkins Creamery Road, struck a tree and burst into flames. Ryan was killed, and four others were injured, one critically.
Capt. Didone called the circumstances the kind of "deadly combination" that he often warns students about: an inexperienced driver, a country road, several students in the car. He said his son had apparently not worn a seat belt, although he usually did. Ryan's mother is a driver's education teacher.
"It only takes a second, a split second, and life is changed," Didone said before addressing the crowd attending the Damascus vigil. "I want all the parents to hug their kids. Today, they came home safe, but you can't assume that tomorrow they will, unless you continue to talk to them."
The accident came despite a series of restrictions that the Maryland General Assembly has enacted in recent years to keep the youngest drivers from carrying passengers, talking on cellphones or driving late at night. Police said they do not yet know whether Zachary Kimble, 17, the Volvo's driver, had violated any of those laws. Alcohol was not a factor, authorities said.
Kimble's mother said he lost control of the vehicle on the curvy road after steering too far to the right to avoid an oncoming vehicle.
"He's a newer driver," Sheri Kimble said. "He just miscalculated."
She said her son, a Damascus senior, broke his wrist in the accident. One passenger, Damascus sophomore Brittany Jones, 16, remained in critical condition yesterday at Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore, police and classmates said. Two others -- senior Christopher Nicholson, 17, and sophomore Kurstin Newport, 15 -- suffered less serious injuries. Of the five, only Nicholson and Kimble wore seat belts, police said.
At last night's vigil, students huddled on the football field bleachers in the evening chill, crying and leaning on each other. Adults also wept.
"Ryan was a good kid," Capt. Didone said. "These are good kids. Bad things sometimes happen to good kids. . . . Make sure you tell your kids you love them -- every day, every night."
Didone commands the police district in and around Damascus and works closely with the Sean Mullsteff Teen Driving Foundation, a community group that aims to stem fatal accidents.
Calling to mind the idea that it takes a village to raise a child, Didone told the crowd "that's what we have" in Damascus. He praised those in the community "who had an opportunity to touch my son and impart love, wisdom, kindness."
After he and others spoke, the crowd lit candles and sang "Amazing Grace." As many filed out, they lined up to hug Ryan's mother.
During the school day, classmates from his Young Life prayer group had spent most of the time together, too emotional to go to class.
"We all gathered in the auditorium, and we just sang our Young Life songs," said Tom Furgason, 17, a senior. "We kind of did it for Ryan."
Sheri Kimble credited Bobby Patton, the youth group's director, with saving the other passengers from further injury. Patton was following the Volvo and leapt from his car to pull the teenagers from the wreckage. "He's a huge hero," she said. "Exactly what he did proves it."
The teens were heading into the center of Damascus from Patton's home, where members of Young Life gather every week for song and worship. The Volvo was westbound on Hawkins Creamery Road near Johnson Farm Drive, an area not as rural as the street names suggest.
Patton ran to the Volvo and signaled to bystanders to dial 911. Then he pulled Ryan Didone, Jones and Newport from the back seat. Nicholson, trapped in the front passenger's seat, was freed by paramedics.
Montgomery police released few other details of the crash.
The five teens lived near each other in the Damascus area, where narrow two-lane roads are the rule. They knew each other through school and the spiritual group, which Ryan joined after taking part in a Young Life camp last summer.
"He actually picked up the Bible and started reading it," said Furgason, a friend. "It was a real life-changing experience."
At Damascus High yesterday, students wrote notes on giant sheets of paper in a hallway. One note read, "Church isn't going to be fun at all anymore." Another: "While we're down here sobbin' it up, you're partyin' it up with Jesus!"
Teens and others visited the crash site throughout the day. They left flowers, a black teddy bear, two crosses and a pumpkin inscribed with the words "Never forget."
Staff writer Katherine Shaver and staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.