A few minutes after 12:30 on a hazy midsummer day, Hartley Abraham -- 17 years old, 6 feet tall, a recreation league power forward who just that week had slam-dunked a basketball for the first time -- stood outside Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School with one of his buddies, Ashland Griffin, and considered what to do.
Griffin, 17, was going to catch a ride with a friend, 16-year-old Michael Schoenfeld. Did Abraham want to join them or just take the bus home as usual?
Getting in the Subaru Outback station wagon would mean a chance to hit the playground courts earlier than usual. Summer school was over for the day, and there were four youths already in the car. Griffin and Abraham made it a half-dozen.
It was July 14, 1998, and Abraham's dream of a college basketball career was about to be shattered, along with several bones in his legs. Passengers Matthew Waymon and Irn Williams, both 16, would soon be dead, as would another motorist, 40-year-old John Wert, his pickup truck crushed when the speeding Subaru spun out of control.
It was the sort of tragedy that befalls reckless, inexperienced young motorists again and again on the nation's roadways. It happened then, and it happens still.
In the Washington area, the roster of fatal traffic accidents over the years involving teenagers and unsafe driving seems endless. Ten young people in the region have died that way in the last few weeks, including two Prince William County teenagers and a 22-year-old man killed Sunday when the speeding car they were riding in slammed into a utility pole.
Less than three weeks ago, when Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, Police Chief J. Thomas Manger and other officials stood before news cameras after a weekend of roadway carnage in their county -- three crashes involving unsafe driving that killed five people ages 16 to 19 and injured four others -- they pledged to "use any tactic" in a campaign to combat recklessness by young motorists. Their laments had the ring of deja vu.
"There's not a year that's gone by in the last six years where I haven't had to send a letter to a family who has lost a child either because of a pedestrian accident or a car accident," Montgomery School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast said that day.
But what becomes of the survivors? That is a question the news conferences don't answer, a question Hartley Abraham and others like him face as they try to rebuild.
What happens next?
The 1998 crash, on East West Highway in Bethesda, involved neither drugs nor alcohol, and the kids weren't racing. Schoenfeld, with a two-week-old driver's license, simply chose to drive 68 mph where the speed limit was 30. After a trial in juvenile court, he would be sentenced to 30 days in a detention center for reckless driving and vehicular manslaughter.
Now, six years later, Abraham still limps, with more than a dozen bolts and screws in his joints, and still thinks of his dead friends.
"One good thing about it: I never had bad dreams, no flashbacks, nothing like that," Abraham, now 23, said recently. "But it killed me on the inside that I couldn't walk. I couldn't do anything for myself. I had to depend on everybody else to feed me."
When Abraham stuffed his long legs into the back luggage compartment of the Outback that July afternoon, he stood six feet tall, and probably would have grown a few more inches before adulthood. He stands 5-foot-11 -- a result of the numerous surgeries on his legs since the accident -- and walks with a slight limp.
The crash shattered his left ankle, snapped his right femur and broke his collarbone. He didn't walk for almost a year. During 10 surgeries in the weeks after the wreck, doctors inserted two screws in his knees, a metal rod in his femur and a dozen screws and a metal plate in his ankle. He has been told he will need at least two more operations.
"A couple of times, things have gotten so bad, I would think, 'Why am I still living?' " Abraham said. "I'll never forget it. It will never leave me."
During his long recovery, family members put together a scrapbook for him. It's a white three-ring binder filled with news clippings and photos from the accident scene, X-rays showing his right femur split like a tree in a hurricane, and photos from his convalescence, when he lay on his back for months, unable to turn to the side.
The first page carries a newspaper photo of the crash scene, of the crushed and twisted Outback. Rescue workers found Abraham sprawled half out of the station wagon's shattered rear window. They lifted him the rest of the way out and laid him on the road. In the photo, he is in the foreground, on his back, wearing his new Air Jordan sneakers. The paramedics have shredded his jeans to get at his mangled legs.
Abraham said he remembers being in the Outback as it went out of control at a curve on busy East West Highway that afternoon. And he remembers staring at the sun when he regained consciousness briefly at the accident scene, thinking: "I know this is just a bad dream. I'm going to close my eyes and wake up."
The last six years have been filled with rehabilitation and a string of short-lived jobs -- grocery store cashier, cook at a retirement home, a stint with a swimming pool company -- all interrupted by periods of medical treatment, including hospital stays. He has yet to get a driver's license, and for months after the accident, he was nervous just getting in a car.
"That was a depressing time for me," said Abraham, who recently got a job at a convenience store. "That was a time I had to really sit down and think what had really happened to me. . . . I got so depressed, it was like, 'I don't want to work anymore. I don't want to do anything.' " He said he has lost touch with the other survivors -- with Schoenfeld; with passenger Blake Carter, 15, who declined through his mother to be interviewed; and with Griffin, who is now a student at Wittenberg University in Ohio.
"The accident is still in my mind," Griffin said in an interview yesterday. "There's something that reminds me about it every day. . . . I've been very hesitant on forming really close friendships, because I've seen what can happen to them."
Lawsuits filed against Schoenfeld by Abraham; by Wert's widow, Mary Wert; and by Williams's mother, Maureen Brogden, were settled out of court in 1999 for undisclosed sums. Mary Wert declined to discuss the accident recently, and Brogden did not respond to notes left at her apartment. Abraham declined to discuss the lawsuit in detail.
Schoenfeld's father said recently that his son, now in college, did not want to talk about the crash. Shortly after the accident, his mother told a reporter that Schoenfeld was a responsible driver and "was not swerving to entertain his friends."
But testimony at his trial told a different story. On the witness stand, Abraham described the ride as "a roller coaster" and said Schoenfeld was weaving in traffic and laughing. When Schoenfeld lost control of the Outback at a curve, the car swerved into oncoming traffic and collided head-on with a pickup truck driven by Wert, a Rockville resident who worked as a sales representative for a remodeling company. He was killed instantly.
Waymon and Williams also were killed, and Schoenfeld, Carter and Griffin were hurt, though none as severely as Abraham.
"He just wanted to have fun in the car," Abraham said recently of Schoenfeld, "and because he wanted to have fun in the car, two of my friends are dead."
East West Highway is narrow and winding in the area where the three died that day, and officials say little can be done to make the road safer, because the land flanking it is developed to the road's edge. There is no space to widen the road, said David Buck, spokesman for the Maryland State Highway Administration.
Since the accident, crews have put up small, orange plastic pillars in the middle of the road and have turned three westbound lanes into two by altering the road stripes.
No deaths have occurred there since the crash of July 14, 1998.
Abraham did not go to the funerals of his two friends because he was still hospitalized. But the final pages of his scrapbook hold photos of Matthew Waymon that were assembled for Waymon's memorial service.
As Abraham struggled to regain his health in the months after the crash, Waymon's parents, Todd and Lynne Waymon, were racked by deeper pain. In their Silver Spring home, Lynne Waymon "would occasionally say, 'I think we ought to move. This place has too many memories of Matt,' " her husband recalled recently. And Todd Waymon would say, "Well, there are a lot of happy memories, and I think that's good."
In 2002, the couple decided to leave. They sold the house, finally gave away their son's clothing and donated his books to a library. Todd Waymon dismantled his son's wooden bed and used the pieces to build a bookshelf, which now holds pictures of Matt. He was their only child, adopted from India. Sometimes, Todd Waymon said, he and his wife talk to the pictures.
The decision to move wasn't easy, he said. The couple took a last walk through the old house the weekend before Thanksgiving in 2002, remembering the years there with their son. "It was saying goodbye to one chapter of our lives," the father recalled.
Abraham sometimes lives in his parents' home in Bowie, where he still keeps the first-place trophies that his recreation basketball league teams won in 1994 and 1995. And he can still rattle off his stats from those years -- "22 points a game, 10 rebounds, three assists."
When he finally returned to classes after the crash, he was in a wheelchair and months behind in his schoolwork. He graduated in 2000, a year late.
He didn't walk again until more than eight months had passed after the crash. Basketball was impossible for more than a year. First, the obstacles were physical: Learning to walk again, and then to run, was hard enough. Jumping was a whole new challenge.
"Sometimes it really is hard, because you see kids running around and playing, and you would love to go out there and run around and jump, but you can't," he said.
Even when he was physically capable of playing basketball, it took time for Abraham to conquer the mental stumbling blocks created by his new sense of vulnerability.
"I was scared that if I started playing, my leg was going to collapse on me," he said. "If I get hit the wrong way, will my legs break again? . . . I had to push myself to go ahead and pick up a basketball again and play."
The first time Abraham returned to the court, he shot two baskets.
Then he walked away, he said.
"It wasn't the same as it used to be."
Staff writer Katherine Shaver and researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.