Aftermath of a deadly crash: Driver uses his guilt and grief to teach others

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 7, 2010; C01

Perhaps for only seconds, he nodded off. Danny McCoy awoke as his car hit a utility pole in Rockville and the teenage girl in his passenger seat vaulted into the windshield. It was sudden, like an explosion, and then slow in its unfolding horror.

The girl, falling back. Her body, injured. His fear that she would die.

How many times he has wished he hadn't been driving drunk -- 19 years old, coming home from a College Park fraternity party at 5:15 a.m.

How many times McCoy has wished that he could trade places with the girl in his car, that he had been the one in peril.

Instead, he was the one who survived the wreckage, responsible for the death of a 17-year-old he hardly knew. Five years into the aftermath, McCoy lives with himself by talking to others about that dark morning, each time hoping for one less crash.

* * *

Every year, about 3,500 American teens die in car crashes, according to federal statistics. They die after graduation parties and school proms and on ordinary weekends -- cheerleaders and honor students and kids who have not yet found themselves, and never will.

But there are other casualties, too: Parents and siblings. Classmates. Grandparents and sports teams and church groups.

McCoy thinks a lot about this wave of devastation -- the number of people who are affected and how deeply -- which became painfully clear to him with the death of his passenger, Alexandra Everhart, a high school senior from the Baltimore suburbs.

"Alex" was an honor student who loved art and photography and spent summers working as a lifeguard. At Perry Hall High School, she read the morning announcements and served in the student senate. The night of Feb. 18, 2005, she was visiting a friend on the University of Maryland campus.

"I think about her family every day of my life," says McCoy, now 24. "I think about her every single day of my life."

Recounting the night that ended Alex's life and unraveled his own, McCoy describes his choices with a candor that silences teenage audiences, and inspires some teachers to ask him back again and again. He's made 180 presentations, to more than 35,000 people, though he doesn't mention Alex by name, out of respect, he says, for her family. He often refers to her as "my victim" or "my passenger."

His message is about effect -- the unbearable weight of the crash on so many lives, the enduring sorrow he brought upon people he did not even know. "Trust me, I'm telling you, you do not want to do that to your family or someone else's family," says McCoy, 6-foot-2 and athletic, dressed in jeans and a polo shirt as he stands before 700 students at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School.

As he tells it in speeches and interviews, that Friday night in 2005 started with anticipation of seeing old friends. McCoy, who had enlisted in the Marine Corps before his 2003 graduation from Magruder High School, was stationed at Cherry Point, N.C. He had come home for Presidents' Day weekend, stopped off briefly to see his mother in Derwood and headed out to visit his best buddy, a student at U-Md.

The details are still vivid to him. How he drove to his friend's College Park apartment. How he bought his friend a bottle of vodka and told him: "Dude, let's just start taking shots." How another friend called, and they set out for the frat party.

There, McCoy met Alex. There was a keg of beer, and by evening's end, Alex could not locate her friends. She and McCoy went to his friend's apartment, only to discover they needed a key code to get inside and that McCoy's cellphone was dead. He borrowed Alex's phone, then realized he didn't remember his friend's number.

It was after 3:30 a.m.

McCoy tells audiences that, his thinking clouded by alcohol, he considered three options: taking Alex back to the party, dropping her off somewhere in College Park to find her friends or driving with her 25 miles to his parents' house in Derwood.

He decided to drive.

With Alex asleep in the car, McCoy drove his 1985 El Camino to the Beltway, headed west, and then north, up Route 355. He was just beyond Montgomery College when he passed out. The car swerved onto a Rockville sidewalk. It swiped a concrete barrier wall. It crashed into a pole at College Parkway.

McCoy was seat-belted; Alex was not. The passenger side took the impact.

In the Bethesda school auditorium, he describes how Alex was injured and that she died at the hospital.

Two students near the front look away. One puts her hand over her mouth.

"I ask you, could you imagine every single day of your life, knowing that you're responsible for someone's parents getting that phone call?" he says. "But even worse, can you imagine being 40 or 50 or 60 years old, getting that phone call at 4, 5, 6 in the morning?

"I can't even begin to imagine the pain and the emotions that her parents were going through."

A life cut short

It took McCoy time to find words for what had happened. The Monday after Alex was killed, he returned to his Marine Corps base in North Carolina, where he was stripped of rank, pay and his work as a calibration technician while the military decided whether to discharge him.

He spent idle hours drinking in despair. By April, he was sent to a psychiatric unit; he had suicidal thoughts.

"My main thought was: Why do I deserve to live if she's not living? That was all I could think about."

He asked a Navy chaplain whether he would encounter Alex again in the afterlife. The chaplain opened a Bible to 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and told McCoy that when Jesus comes again, God would bring back the Christians who have died and they would be reunited with the living as they all meet the Lord.

"It gave me faith that I would see her again," McCoy says.

McCoy was eventually discharged from the Marine Corps, where he'd once hoped to have a long career. There was no trial. He pleaded guilty to homicide by a motor vehicle while impaired. Tests showed his blood-alcohol level was .07 about 2 1/2 hours after the crash, and presumably much higher at the time of it.

At his sentencing on Sept. 20, 2006, McCoy listened as Alex's bereft family talked about her being the glue that held them together. Alex had just bought a car and had cut out pictures of the prom dress she dreamed of wearing. She was making her college choice -- Towson or Salisbury -- as she hunted for scholarships to defray the cost.

"She couldn't wait to be 18 and start her adult life," her mother, Shirley Everhart, said.

The night before the crash, Alex had told her parents she would be sleeping over at "Katie's" house, and her parents assumed she meant a close friend -- not a friend of the same name who attended Maryland.

Early the next morning, her father's cellphone rang.

"Hey, Al," he answered, seeing her name come up. But it was police. They had found Alex's cellphone at the crash scene.

By the time the family arrived at the hospital, Alex was gone.

"Alex won't get to be Auntie Alex to her sisters' children or be a mom, which she would have been great at. She won't get to be an adult, have a career, get married, or go on a honeymoon, have a baby or a home," her mother said at the sentencing.

Her shattered parents took months off work and struggled financially. "We were in such a state of shock we couldn't do anything," Shirley Everhart wrote in a letter to the judge. " . . . We just sat there, staring at four walls."

She told McCoy: "I hope you never forget what you took away from us."

McCoy apologized in the courtroom, the first time he'd spoken to Alex's family. A lawyer had advised him not to contact them for a time, and they were deeply upset .

McCoy told the Everharts about the Bible passage.

"I just want you to know," he said, "that when that day comes, I will stand in front of Alexandra and I will look her in the eye and tell her how sorry I am. And trust me, if I could trade places with your daughter, I would still to this day and forever."

Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge John W. Debelius III concluded it was important that McCoy do jail time, as a message to others and a way to forgive himself. His sentence was 18 months, with all but six suspended. His probation would include 150 hours of community service, speaking to young people.

A way forward

The speeches that started as part of McCoy's sentence have gone 17 months and 72 appearances beyond his court obligation -- school assemblies, health classes, offender programs, Channel 7 "Drive to Stay Alive" presentations. He does not see any end to his volunteering. "This is the most important part of my life," he says.

McCoy is talking in the well-furnished living room of his parents' vinyl-sided Colonial home, where he still lives. There is a Norman Rockwell figure on a shelf, surrounded by photos from his family's own classic American life.

In high school, McCoy was an outgoing kid who played sports and liked having a good time more than hitting his books. With war starting in Iraq, he enlisted in the Marines.

Now he studies hotel and restaurant management through a University of Maryland program, waits tables to earn money and works out at a gym in his free time. He's doing an unpaid summer internship in food operations in a senior-living community.

He is trying to "be a positive person," to move forward, he says. "It's either I contribute to society or I curl up in a little ball and be miserable and not do anything."

McCoy can't remember the last time he had a drink. Not that he has been perfect, he says, but he has mostly abstained. He still does not have a driver's license or a car. He uses buses, Metro and his bike, and relies on his mom and her Honda Pilot to get to his speaking engagements.

Sandy McCoy, 55, gave up teaching preschool after the crash. She says she and her husband, Matt, decided to get by on one income so she could manage the legal and emotional fallout for her son. But she, too, has been affected. At times, she recalls, "I just couldn't stop crying."

Her son often tells high-schoolers that he spent his 21st birthday in jail -- his mother visiting him from behind a glass window. But the deeper story is that his 21st birthday seemed irrelevant. Jail became "the time in my life when I really decided I was done taking from society," he says. "Like I tell people, how can you repay society for taking someone's life? In my opinion, you really can't."

Everything he endured, McCoy says, was "minuscule" compared with what Alex's family was going through.

He wrote two letters to the Everharts. One from jail, to express his regret and say he would do anything to help them heal. Another to answer questions from Alex's sister about the day Alex was killed.

McCoy's first speech came in April 2007, to more than 800 students at Quince Orchard High School in Gaithersburg. Three years later, word has gotten around Montgomery high schools that McCoy is the speaker to get, says Sharon St. Pierre, a parent who recently brought him to Sherwood.

"Dan stands out in that his story is not necessarily about what happened to him, but about . . . the ripple effect and what happens to everyone else because of what he did," she says.

After he spoke at Bethesda-Chevy Chase in March, "everyone was talking about it," says Hannah Sangillo, 17. "It affected everyone. It's a good warning to people my age because that could be you if you made the same mistake."

Adds parent Ellen Bortz, who invited McCoy to Churchill High School in 2007: "I was shaking listening to him."

Surviving loss

Alex's family didn't know that McCoy still speaks to teens about the crash. Shirley Everhart is glad, and says she wished she'd known sooner.

"It's so gut-wrenching to this day," she says in an e-mail, writing her thoughts because it remains hard to talk. For five years, she says, "we have survived through a parent's worst nightmare, not lived."

Alex's bedroom is the same as it was the day she died, she writes. "I keep the door shut, but go in often and look around." Everhart still cannot watch videos of her middle daughter; they hurt too much. Birthdays are excruciating, as are holidays and the February anniversaries of Alex's death. Summers, too -- Alex's favorite time of year.

There is torment, she says, in knowing what Alex went through and that she died alone. At the hospital, her parents were handed a plastic bag with Alex's senior class ring, her cellphone and a belly-button ring.

"I accept pain now as part of our lives and we endure it the best we can," she says.

Alex's classmates raised $3,000 for her heart-shaped gravestone. For her 21st birthday, friends threw a party at her grave.

Everhart prefers to remember Alex in a garden she plants every spring with flowers in Alex's favorite colors. "White butterflies flutter around me as I plant, and I talk to her," she says. She also has dreams of her daughter so vivid that "I feel she visits me though them. That's what I look forward to. God sends me them."

Sober words

Every time McCoy looks into a crowd of students, he knows some are drinking underage, not considering all that is at risk.

"I probably had driven drunk 100 or 1,000 times before that," he tells almost every audience. "And truly, I probably thought I was a better drunk driver than a sober driver" -- making sure to watch his speed, use turn signals, keep both hands on the wheel.

In Burtonsville, McCoy shows up just days before prom at Paint Branch High School, and the details of the crash bring a hush over the crowd.

"Now, I'll tell you all, I've been to Seven Locks jail, I've been to Clarksburg jail, I've been on probation, I've been on house arrest, I've been suicidal, I've been kicked out of the Marine Corps," he says. "I've done all that, and that's not why I tell you this story.

"I tell you this story to think about her family, and her friends, all those people that my choices affected in such a negative way. . . . 99.9 percent of those people I've affected, I'll probably never get to look them in the eye and tell them I'm sorry for what I've taken from them."

McCoy talks about how Alex never went to prom or graduation. How devastated her parents and sisters were. How her classmates missed the sound of her voice on the morning announcements.

His story doesn't change the behavior of everyone who hears it. A month after the crash, his best friend -- "the guy I was taking shots of vodka with that night" -- was arrested for driving under the influence. He had three passengers in the car.

More recently, a close friend of McCoy's who had been drinking swerved and hit a tree in the Damascus area. He died.

Several hours later, McCoy arrived at the friend's family's home, enveloped by a grief he says made the air feel heavy.

"To see how much pain and destruction his choices caused in other people's lives," McCoy says, "I'm telling you all, you do not want to put that much pain and destruction in this world."

The auditorium is quiet until his talk ends, when a dozen students gather around. This time, some questions are personal. Which sports he played in school. If he liked the Marines. How many tattoos he has.

He hopes they see themselves in him -- and the danger of the same mistakes.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company