It had been a Friday night like many others, a night with close friends, a baseball game and beers when Philip Weeda, then a 19-year-old sophomore at Catholic University, climbed into the back seat of a friend's car outside a downtown bar for a ride home.
The last thing Weeda says he remembers is the flashing red lights of the rescue trucks. He had been leafing through a newspaper, his feet propped up on the back of the front seat, when his friend, admittedly driving drunk, attempted a left turn from Florida Avenue onto Connecticut, lost control and rolled the car over on its side.
Weeda, a former weightlifter and football player, was left a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the neck down.
"My life is ruined. I'm not a human being any more," Weeda says now, three years after the accident. "Who's going to want me?"
Intent on reconciling a moment's indiscretion with life strapped in a wheelchair, and convinced that city rescue workers are responsible for his paralysis, Weeda sued the District for $4 million.
But in a decision earlier this month, a D.C. Superior Court jury dismissed Weeda's claim, deciding that the firemen who rescued him are not to blame for his condition.
Weeda, who these days can be seen steering his motor-driven wheelchair across the quadrangle at Catholic, where he studies accounting, says he and his lawyers will try to determine whether there are grounds for a new trial.
He has taken these legal steps, he said, not to fix blame, but to avoid what he dreads most: becoming "a family pet," dependent on his family for everything from feeding and dressing him to putting him to bed.
"They took the pot of gold away from the end of my rainbow," he said in an interview after the verdict. "There's just no way we thought we were going to lose."
At trial, Weeda's attorney, Joseph Barse, argued that fire rescue personnel who responded to the accident prevented paramedics and medical technicians from treating Weeda. Barse contended they "negligently and wrecklessly" removed him from the wreck without putting splints on his broken neck first, causing permanent damage to Weeda's spinal cord.
Fire rescue workers responded in court that they "did everything possible" to ensure Weeda's safety.
The suit originally was brought by Weeda's brother, David, a former attorney in the general counsel's office of the Food and Drug Administration who said he has since left the government for private practice to help pay some of his brother's expenses.
David Weeda said he became suspicious about the accident after watching a television news show two days later that described an incident in which paramedics and firefighters had reportedly been at odds over rescue procedures.
"What happened to Philip happened not only to him, but to the whole family," David Weeda said in an interview last week. "It's absolutely devastating."
The case presented lawyers on both sides with a problem: There is no legal precedent in the District for a person bringing a claim against rescue workers after an accident in which both the victim and the driver admitted they were drunk.
City attorneys argued that Weeda's poor judgment in getting into the car contributed to the accident and his injuries and should have barred him from making a claim against the fire department.
Judge Joseph M. Hannon ruled that although Weeda was negligent, the jury could not consider that in its deliberations.
Weeda's hospital bills have reached nearly $350,000, paid for primarily by his medical insurance. He spent more than three months at Georgetown University Hospital after the accident and nearly a year of rehabilitation therapy at the Rusk Institute in New York.
He has been hospitalized numerous times for complications arising from his paralysis, including phlebitis, blood embolisms, urinary problems and muscle spasms.
When he came home, Weeda and his mother, a retired program analyst for the Veterans Administration, moved to a ranch house in suburban Maryland because it would have cost $40,000 to renovate their two-story colonial house on Nebraska Avenue NW to accommodate his handicap. They also bought a van to take him to school.
Weeda has no control over his body functions. State vocational rehabilitation funds pay for the estimated $13,000 annual cost of keeping a full-time attendant to tend to his needs, but only as long as Weeda remains in school.
With partial use of the bicep in his right arm, Weeda is able to move a lever on his electric wheelchair's controls. But the student who once spent his Friday nights drinking with friends at bars can no longer hold a glass.
At trial, a psychiatrist testified that Weeda contemplates suicide every day, imagines himself steering his wheelchair over the top of the basement stairs and tumbling helplessly to the bottom.
"I feel outraged," Weeda said, still angry over what he says he believes was a mishandled rescue. "I could be walking. I could be having a normal life. I could have had that chance."
Oct. 6, 1979, was like countless other Friday nights Weeda had spent with his friends John Gannon and Robert Langley: drinking beer and having fun. The three had lived within a few blocks of each other in the District of Columbia near Chevy Chase Circle, had known each other since fifth grade.
They played football for the Blessed Sacrament Bombers in grade school, and shot baskets together on the courts at the Chevy Chase Community Center. The three split up during high school: Gannon and Langley went to Gonzaga, Weeda to St. John's College High School.
Weeda became a serious weightlifter, working out in the basement at home after school. When he wasn't pumping iron, he pumped gas and waited tables to earn money for a car, a Datsun hatchback.
He reunited with his old friends on weekends. During summer breaks, they headed for the beach in Weeda's Datsun, "trailing the streets of Bethany, looking for a good time."
The three called themselves "Bethany Three-0," a parody of the television series "Hawaii Five-O." Weeda became "Weed-Ho."
"That's what happens after you've had a couple of six-packs," he says now.
Weeda's father died when he was two. He enrolled at Catholic to study accounting because "I didn't like the idea of leaving my mother alone." Gannon returned to Washington after a year at Marquette University in Milwaukee. Langley was attending Montgomery County College.
The night of the accident, they drove in Gannon's '76 Subaru to Manny's bar near Tenley Circle to watch the Baltimore Orioles play the California Angels in the American League playoffs. Later they cruised downtown to the 21st Amendment for more beers before going home.
"I'd been driving for three years with John and never had an accident," said Weeda, whose own blood-alcohol level after the accident was measured at three times the legal limit. "Why would I get into a car if I thought I was going to end up paralyzed?"
Gannon, the driver, suffered a broken neck but recovered fully. Langley was slightly injured. Gannon's representatives later settled with Weeda for $50,000, in exchange for a release from any court suits. Weeda says he has no hard feelings toward his friends and still sees Langley regularly.
Weeda's mother, Helen Weeda, still clings to hopes he will walk again. He winces when she suggests he see a faith healer.
"What's happened to my mother is a crime," Weeda said. "Every time she sees me in this chair, it hurts her. I think if she could, she would sell her soul to the devil to get me out of it."