Col. Richard Proctor was alone in his office on Christmas Eve when he first learned that something was wrong. At 4:30 p.m., a doctor at Carroll County General Hospital called to tell him his family had been in an automobile accident.
"I asked him who was involved. He said he'd tell me after I got there," recalls Proctor. "He told me that my wife was at the Baltimore shock trauma unit. It never occurred to me that anyone in my immediate family might be dead."
A few hours later, in Glen Burnie, Roberta Cooper also received a phone call, this one from the Maryland State Police. Her husband Kevin, she was told, had been injured in an accident. That same night, Cooper was charged with driving while intoxicated and reckless driving.
Later, charges of homicide by automobile while intoxicated and automobile manslaughter would be brought against Cooper. By then the accident and the five persons who had died in it would be widely publicized.
On a rural Carroll County road, Cooper's car, according to police, had jumped lanes and collided with a car driven by Martha Proctor, 45, Richard's wife. She and her two daughters, Sheilia, 17, and Tanya Jeanette, 22, had been seriously injured in the crash. Her two sons, Roger, 14, and Terry, 23, had been killed. And her three grandchildren, Rebecca Ann Jeanette, 3; Pauline Marie Jeanette, 18 months, and Ruth Ann Jeanette, 4 weeks, were dead.
Because Cooper was charged with driving while intoxicated, the accident has been seized on by proponents of stronger penalties against drunken driving, whose movement has attracted widespread attention recently in the Washington area and around the country.
A variety of proposals have been made to reduce drunken driving accidents and the 26,000 deaths they cause every year: raising the drinking age from 18 to 21 in Maryland, imposing mandatory license suspensions and jail terms in Virginia and lowering the blood alcohol level needed for a presumption of drunkenness in the District of Columbia.
In the political debate that accompanies these measures, a numbing number of statistics are cited, and the names of victims are invoked almost until they have no meaning. Yet when the rhetoric is stripped away, the shattered lives of the survivors are left behind. For the Proctor and Cooper families, things will never be the same.
On the morning of Dec. 24, Kevin Cooper, a 25-year-old carpenter, drove his Plymouth station wagon from his home in Glen Burnie, a working class Baltimore suburb, to a construction site outside of Frederick, Md., where a new house was under construction.
Cooper normally worked from 7 a.m. until 3:30 p.m., but because it was Christmas Eve the crew stopped work at 11 to attend a party arranged by Donald Wells, the crew boss, at the Avalon Seafood Restaurant in nearby Mount Pleasant.
For the next few hours, Cooper and his friends relaxed and exchanged jokes with each other in a private dining room with dark wood paneling, fishing nets and sea shells.
William DeLawter, manager of the restaurant, said a waitress spread several tables for Wells' party with $80 worth of shrimp, cheeses, chips, pretzels and bologna.
"Mr. Wells said he was only going to spend $20 for beer," DeLawter said. "At 75 cents a can, that worked out to about two beers per man. After that was gone, the men bought each other a few rounds of beer."
"They were real quiet, nice and polite," said Debbie Glacken, the waitress who served the party. "I remember them saying it was really great of Don Wells to give them a party. By 3 o'clock, Kevin was one of only three people still left at the party."
At 2:30 p.m., Martha Proctor, after a morning of work at her home in Clarksburg, in upper Montgomery County, had virtually wrapped up final preparations for the Christmas pageant scheduled to begin at the family's church in Westminster at 6:30 p.m.
The Proctors had moved to Clarksburg last June from West Germany when Richard, an Army doctor, was appointed commandant of students at the Naval Medical Center in Bethesda. After 17 years in the military, the couple was used to moving around.
Involvement in church activities also was nothing new for either Martha Proctor or her husband. They had met, in fact, at a Christian retreat in Oklahoma the summer after they graduated from high school and Richard Proctor had studied for the ministry before deciding to go to medical school and then the Army.
The Christmas pageant at United Methodist Church in Westminster, where Martha Proctor was director of religious education, was to be a family affair. Ruth Ann Jeanette, their 4-week-old granddaughter, was to play the role of baby Jesus. One son, Roger, was to play a shepherd; another son, Terry, was to be Joseph, and daughter Tanya was cast as Mary.
As she busied herself getting ready, the small children played on the living room floor, near the Christmas tree, where their gifts were wrapped and stacked neatly. Roger tried on the shepherd's headgear he had bought as a souvenir last spring when the family was touring the Holy Land.
Martha Proctor had asked the players and choir members to meet her at church at 5:30. She planned to be there by 4:30, leaving home at 3:30 to give herself a full hour to make the 45-minute drive.
At 3:15 she began to load the car, making sure she brought the small gifts she got for her staff at church--a tree ornament, a little angel and a plaque inscribed with inspirational poetry. Her passengers took their places. Roger, Tanya and Sheilia got into the back seat and held the three children on their laps. Terry took the front passenger seat. Martha Proctor took the driver's seat.
On schedule, at 3:30, she turned the ignition key to her 1,950-pound Volkswagen Rabbit, backed out of her driveway and headed north on Rte. 27 toward Westminster.
About the same time, Kevin Cooper started his 5,500-pound Plymouth station wagon and pulled out of the parking lot of the Avalon restaurant for the 70-mile drive to his home in Glen Burnie where he was to pick up his wife and son and go to his grandparents' home for a traditional Christmas Eve dinner with the rest of his family. He headed south on Rte. 26 in the direction of Rte. 27, then I-70 and Glen Burnie.
At 3:45, Martha Proctor was just north of the small town of Mount Airy. Granddaughter Rebecca continued a serenade of her original tunes as the car rolled past hilly farmland and small clusters of houses.
At almost that moment, Cooper had made his turn off Rte. 26 at Taylorsville, a small village, and was headed south on Rte. 27 past fallow cornfields, a herd of cows crowded around a feed pile, some houses with twinkling Christmas lights.
Ten minutes later, Richard Francis Biss, sitting in a bedroom talking with his wife, felt the tremors of a collision outside.
"I looked out the window and saw there'd been an accident and smoke was coming from the cars," Biss said. "I grabbed our fire extinguisher and ran out and sprayed the flames that were coming from the station wagon.
"A neighbor brought another extinguisher and we sprayed beneath the hood of the VW."
"Both cars were still upright, but the VW was smashed in pretty bad," Biss said. "The woman who was driving was in shock. Blood was running down her face. I told her not to move, that someone would help her get out.
"Then I heard another woman in back of the car shouting, 'Help us, we have babies in here.'
"I walked around the car and saw the head of one small child wedged beneath the dash. The arms of two men were hanging out of the side of the car.
"I waited until the firemen came with a chain saw. They cut the top off the VW and peeled it back like a tin can," he said. "Then the helicopters came and the ambulances and they started to pull the people out of the cars."
At 5:10 p.m., he said, "I went back inside my house. There was nothing else I could do."
Cooper's 1969 Plymouth station wagon apparently had swerved over the center line and plowed head-on into the Proctors' Rabbit, according to state police.
Cpl. Dennis Murphey said he could not discuss further details of the crash, Cooper's rate of speed or his blood alcohol content. State's Attorney Tom Hickman said a trial is scheduled for April 5 and 6 in Carroll County District Court.
Cooper, who suffered a shattered hip socket, has been hospitalized since the accident. He has not returned to the small blue and white Cape Cod style house in Glen Burnie that he and his wife bought nearly two years ago.
Around his neighborhood, he is described as "a quiet, hard-working man," a faithful husband, and the hero of his 20-month-old son, Gregory.
Neither he nor his wife will discuss the accident, but according to neighbors and family members, it has already had a severe impact. His father, James Cooper, previously the victim of serious heart ailments, had a heart attack the week after the accident, lapsed into a coma and died two weeks after that without regaining consciousness.
Roberta Cooper, beleaguered by threatening phone calls, has had the family's telephone number changed and unlisted. Their son has been shuttled off to live with the child's maternal grandparents in Alexandria until the crisis subsides.
Cooper's family has retained two Baltimore lawyers, D. Chris Ohly and George D. Pappas, to defend him. Neither will comment on the case.
But Dora Cooper, the wife of Kevin's older brother, said, "The whole family has been in sort of a state of shock since the accident happened. Kevin was a model teen-ager, a model young adult . . . . He's never been a heavy drinker." The family does not believe, she says, that Cooper was driving drunk.
"Our fear is that they're not going to be fair to Kevin and that they'll try to make an example out of him when he goes to court."
Richard Proctor and his wife, meanwhile, say they are not bitter toward Cooper and would like to see him treated fairly in court.
"We would accomplish nothing by seeking revenge or by feeling bitter," said Proctor. "We've felt from the beginning that the most important thing we could do was to give the man our personal forgiveness.
"This doesn't alter the fact that we believe he was wrong and that there should be some punitive measures," he added. "But bringing him to justice is the job of the police and the prosecutors."
Those in the family who survived the accident still wrestle with their loss.
Every night, Tanya Jeanette said, she relives the crash in her nightmares. "I can see the other car coming and I try to steer out of the way. But I know that in the end the two cars must collide and my babies must die."
There are also unexpected reminders of the dead. A rattle Sheilia had ordered for one of the babies arrived one day recently. And the turned earth of a bed of jonquils that Roger planted last fall will soon be visible through the melting snow.
"Roger didn't know it, but he was planting his own memorial," Martha Proctor says of her son.
Richard Proctor remembers his custom of coming home and routinely being met by Pauline and Rebecca at the door. "They'd both grab me and lock their arms around my legs," Proctor says. "I'd have to pick them both up and it was an hour later before I could put them down."
The school bus that serves neighborhood children also serves as a constant reminder. Martha Proctor remembers in particular the first day of school after the Christmas holidays, as she leaned on her crutches at the living room window and watched the bus let off the kids:
"It really hurt when my son didn't get off the bus."