For Jessica Gelatka, a bright high school senior with dreams of becoming a veterinarian, it was an extraordinarily high price to pay for what appears to have been a momentary lapse in judgment behind the wheel of her car.
The Calvert High School honor student had stopped on Dorsey Road, preparing to leave school Wednesday, then inexplicably pulled left into busy Dares Beach Road, never noticing the black Jeep bearing down, authorities and witnesses say.
The 1997 Jeep Cherokee, driven by Loretta Galloway, struck the driver's side door of Gelatka's 1996 Volkswagen GTI so hard that Galloway's Jeep careered to the side of the road, her seat belt wrenched so tight against her chest that she found it difficult to breathe. Galloway, 59, of Bowie survived. Gelatka did not.
Gelatka was taken to Calvert Memorial Hospital, where she was pronounced dead, said Lt. Homer Rich of the Maryland State Police. Galloway was taken to Prince George's Hospital Center and later released. Neither vehicle had passengers.
Galloway, who was recovering from knee and arm bruises from the collision, said Gelatka's car appeared without warning.
"If there was a way [to avoid hitting her], I would have," Galloway said Thursday in a telephone interview.
Neither speed nor alcohol appeared to be factors in the 2:30 p.m. accident. Gelatka was the third juvenile killed in traffic accidents this year in Calvert County, Rich said.
At a time when several young people around the region have lost their lives on the road when speed or alcohol or both were involved, Wednesday's accident is a grim reminder that even the most fleeting misjudgments can be deadly.
"Life is fragile, and we sometimes take things for granted," said Calvert High School Principal Gene Bridgett, who led students in a moment of silence Thursday morning after announcing Gelatka's death over the school intercom.
Gelatka was in the school band and was a member of the National Honor Society, Bridgett said.
The Rev. Randall W. Casto, pastor at Saint Nicholas Lutheran Church in Huntingtown, where the Gelatka family are parishioners, said Gelatka "was a wonderful young woman."
He said Gelatka had a "wonderful sense of humor and a very bright mind." Though she was quiet, he said, she was passionate about her opinions, especially in standing up for classmates who were disparaged at school.
"She had a heart for those who were marginalized, those who were teased," Casto said. "She had a wonderful heart for the disenfranchised. That took courage."
Casto said Gelatka also had a deep and abiding love for her brother, Jason. "He was the outgoing one, and she was the quiet one," Casto said. "But they had a wonderfully close relationship."
He said Jessica's parents, William and Jean Gelatka of Prince Frederick, had requested privacy while they mourn. "We can't even imagine the pain," Casto said.
The Calvert County Sheriff's Office usually assigns a deputy to a nearby intersection each day at school dismissal time. Lt. Bobby Jones said the officer assists buses pulling onto Dares Beach Road from the school. However, the Sheriff's Office does not station anyone at Dorsey Road, he said.
Galloway, the driver of the Jeep, said the intersection at Dorsey and Dares Beach roads is perilously busy, especially after school lets out.
"I really wish they would do something about traffic out there, like put up a stop light or have police there, directing traffic," she said.
Calvert County has recorded 12 fatal crashes this year with a total of 14 deaths, Rich said. Last year, 17 fatal crashes claimed 20 lives in Calvert, he said.
Gelatka's death marked the fifth traffic fatality in Southern Maryland in a week.
Early on the morning of Sept. 23, a taxi swerved to avoid a stalled car left in a northbound lane of Route 301 near Brandywine, which set in motion a chain of fiery collisions that left three people dead.
Two days later, Jeanuette Nichole Carter, 21, was killed when the motorcycle she was operating left the road on Route 2/4 at Coster and Mill Bridge roads south of Lusby in Calvert County. Carter, of Clinton, was ejected from the motorcycle and struck by a car, authorities said.
Casto said scores of people, including many youths, turned out for visitation services for Gelatka on Friday afternoon at Lee Funeral Home in Chaneyville.
"A lot of teenagers there were in tears," Casto said. "They were there to share their grief with the family and share how Jessica touched their lives."