After drinking a few beers, flirting with the girls at the bar and commiserating over the dearth of hot parties that night, James Kowalski and four of his buddies from Oxon Hill wandered out of the Sunnybrook Tavern early Sunday morning in search of a better time.
As they strolled through the parking lot toward Kowalski's bright blue Chevy, they encountered his sister. "Go home," said 18-year-old Sally Kowalski to her 19-year-old brother. "You've had enough to drink."
But Kowalski and his young companions ignored her. They pulled out onto Livingston Road, turned right on Indian Head Highway, and began cruising over to what they considered the only other decent nightspot in that barren section of southern Prince George's County -- the M and M Tavern near Accokeek.
Four miles down the road, Kowalski attempted to pass another car on a sloping, single-lane stretch of the highway and collided head-on with a northbound Ford.
Kowalski, David Ehringer, 15, Michael Edward Morgan, 21, and William Page Wood, 19 -- all from Oxon Hill -- were killed instantly and three other persons were critically injured in the 1:5 a.m. crash, the worst in the Washington area since April, when 10 teen-agers were killed in an accident near Fort Meade.
"The people were just lying in there with no way for anybody to get them out. The fire department had to come and rip the roof off," said tow-truck driver Mark Teets, one of the first on the scene. "It was about the worst I ever saw."
Another passenger in Kowalski's car, 19-year-old Joseph Krol, was listed in critical condition yesterday at Greater Southeast Community Hospital. The driver of the Ford, Ada Smith, 57, and a passenger, Betty Warfield, 48, also were listed in critical condition while Smith's daughter Debby, 14, was pronounced stable with multiple fractures.
Police, friends, witnesses and relatives of the victims gave the following account of events leading to the gruesome accident, which happened 10 miles south of Washington on an unlit portion of the highway near Fort Washington Forest.
After eating a spaghetti dinner at his home at 17 Balmoral Dr. East, warehouse worker Kowalski picked up Krol and Ehringer at their Oxon Hill homes.
"There's really not much to do on Saturday nights except bar-hop or go to parties," said 17-year-old Dennis Morgan, brother of Michael. "You can hang out in parking lots or go to theaters, but movies cost too much."
One of the few places for working-class youths to go, he said, is the Sunnybrook Tavern at 9001 Livingston rd. Kowalski and his two friends went there shortly after 8 p.m. Morgan and Page joined then at the tavern after dropping their girl friends off at home.
It was unclear how much the five buddies drank that night.
But back home, Margaret Kowalski, the victim's mother, said she had been worrying about her son.
"Just Friday, he stayed out all night. I was worried about the hours he was keeping and the drinking and all," she said. "He liked beer. Once, I hid his car keys because I didn't want him to go out. He had a spare, though."
The five friends lived within two miles of one another in tranquil Oxon Hill neighborhoods. Dennis Morgan stood outside his home yesterday reflecting on his dead brother and the weekend activities of Oxon Hill youths.
"We hang out in parking lots or go to McDonald's but beside that there isn't much. Oxon Hill isn't a hot place to be. The most excitement we have is when we get into fights with outsiders," he remarked, as he and his friends displayed cuts and bruises on their knuckles.
Yesterday, Dennis Morgan went to see the remains of the car in which his brother died. "That thing," he said in awe, "was all messed up."
Their tragic final journey began at 1:30 a.m. Kowalski had driven for about four miles down the highway when he came upon a southbound 1974 Volkswagen driven by 23-year-old Roland Kissinger of Oxon Hill. Kissinger said yesterday he was taking his girl friend home when he noticed the blue Nova in his rear view mirror.
"The guy must have been going about 70," said Kissinger. The speed limit is 50 miles per hour at that point of the highway, a no-passing zone.
"He comes up and tries to pass me but clips my rear end. He goes on by and then wham, he hits the other car head-on," Kissinger recalled.
The impact forced Kowalski's car into the southbound lane again, and Kissinger broadsided the Nova.
"It was incredible," said Kissinger. "I put my car in reverse and went backward as quick as I could because I thought there was gonna be an explosion."
An ambulance driver, who declined to be identified said, "It was pretty obvious that most everybody in the Nova was gone. The only sign of life came from one guy in the front seat."
Krol was taken to the hospital, while his companions were driven to the county morgue. Prince George's County police recovered "a large quantity" of beer bottles from the Nova.
Smith, Krol and Warfield underwent surgery at Southeast Hospital yesterday as Margaret Kowalski cleaned rooms and vaccumed carpets at home.
"Relatives are gonna be coming from all over to the funeral," she said. "Jimmy had just started his new job and was really enjoying it. I did all I could. I hated to be a nag, but what's a mother supposed to do?"
She showed photographs of her son when he was younger. "He liked to hunt fish with his bow and arrow," she said pointing at a picture of Kowalski holding a fish.
Kowalski's brother, Billy, wept. Five years ago the Kowalskis lost another son under tragic circumstances. Robert Kowalski, the eldest son, was shot to death shortly after returning from military service in Vietnam.
"It'll be hardest for Billy," Margaret Kowalski said. "He was only now getting over Bobby. Now Jimmy's gone."