A little after 5:30 a.m. on a clear Thursday last June, a car carrying two 16-year-olds slammed into an illegally parked tractor-trailer on the shoulder of Route 50, just on the mainland side of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.
There were no skid marks.
A few hours later, there was a knock on Nancy Pion's door in Waldorf, an hour from the crash site, just as she was sitting down to a breakfast of frozen waffles and "The View."
A priest and a policeman stood before her with their hats in their hands.
"Mrs. Pion," they said, "we're sorry . . . "
"It can't be Dustin," Nancy Pion said firmly of her youngest son. "He's at a wrestling tournament in Ocean City."
But the men produced her son's wallet. Nancy Pion called her husband, Larry, and told him to come home from work, right now.During one 11-month period from summer 2001 to summer 2002, that scene became all too familiar in Southern Maryland as four separate auto accidents claimed the lives of six high school athletes, one a recent graduate, and three other teenagers. In a quiet suburban community where families come to raise their children, these families instead buried theirs:
* On July 26, 2001, Scott Hoppe, a 16-year-old rising senior and soccer player at Chopticon High School in Morganza, and Joseph Marcheggiani, an 18-year-old former lacrosse and soccer standout who graduated from Chopticon the month before, were killed when Hoppe lost control of his 1994 Chevrolet Cavalier in a sudden rainstorm.
A third passenger, 17-year-old Steve Terrell, survived.
* On Jan. 27, 2002, siblings Erin and Joshua Davis, a 16-year-old cheerleader and 15-year-old junior varsity football player from Lackey High in Indian Head, died in an accident on Route 1 in Fort Belvoir, where their family had gone to visit friends and watch an NFL playoff game.
A third teenager, 15, also died in the accident, and the 17-year-old who was driving the car survived. The names of these two, also siblings, have been withheld by police because of criminal charges against the latter, a juvenile.
* On March 11, 2002, Joseph Wade, a 16-year-old football player from Lackey, and Eric Graham, an 18-year-old former Lackey student, died when Graham lost control of his 1997 Cavalier and struck a tree on Route 227 near Pomfret. Marques Fincher, 18, a track athlete who graduated from Lackey the year before, survived after being ejected and thrown some 50 feet from the car.
* On June 13, 2002, Dustin Pion, a 16-year-old star wrestler from Westlake High in Waldorf, and Tiffany Wells, a 16-year-old from Thomas Stone High in Waldorf, died when Wells, behind the wheel of Pion's 1984 Datsun 300ZX as they drove home from Ocean City, hit the illegally parked tractor-trailer at full speed just after crossing the Bay Bridge. Police initially speculated that Wells had fallen asleep at the wheel, but the official police report concluded only that the car hit the truck "for unknown reasons." The driver of the tractor-trailer, Jose Luis Wagner of Chesapeake, Va., was cited for parking illegally along the shoulder in an area clearly marked "No Parking."
A review of police records and interviews with those family members willing to discuss the deaths found few links between the accidents. None appeared to have involved alcohol or drugs. All of the deceased with the exception of Marcheggiani, who was in the back seat, were wearing seatbelts. This much is certain: All the athletes had competed in the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference and all were touched by random, horrible, fate.
"There's nothing more devastating," said Dave Anderson, Lackey's athletic director for the past 23 years. "All that potential -- what could they have been? We'll never know."
Not far from Lackey there is a tree along Route 227 that was a site of a fatal accident in May 1999. Two miles down the road, just across the Mattawoman Creek, another tree is gouged five-inches deep with a shredded car bumper strewn around its trunk. A deflated Mylar balloon that reads, "We Love You" hangs from one of its branches.
A quarter-mile ahead on the same road, there is a giant oak tree that stands about 12 inches off the edge of the highway, one with all the bark gouged out on one side at the height of a front bumper.
At the base of that tree sits a small wooden cross broken in two, the vertical axis standing -- with "RIP IN LOVING MEMORY" written from top to bottom -- and the horizontal one, with "Eric" written on one end and "Joe" on the other, resting on the ground, collecting snow.
There is a Tazmanian Devil doll nestled in the grass. There is a wreath on the tree and some wilting roses at its base. There is a machine-printed card in the bouquet of roses.
"Even though you're gone," it says in part, "nothing can get rid of the memories / That's what we will use to keep us strong / That's what we will remember Joe."
It was here that Joseph Wade and Eric Graham died, and where Marques Fincher, thrown from the car, suffered a bruised lung but survived. According to the police report, Graham lost control of the car, drove partially off the roadway, then overcorrected, causing the car to veer across the highway, where it struck the tree on the passenger's side.
For Lackey, it was the second such tragedy to strike within a month and a half. Six weeks earlier, Erin and Joshua Davis were killed, along with a third unidentified teenager, in Fort Belvoir.
According to Lackey's Anderson, rare has been the school year that did not include at least one student fatality, most of them in car accidents. "I have to ask myself this: Do our young drivers today have enough experience to handle the speed of the general flow of traffic out there today? I don't know the answer."
With their hallways flooded by grief counselors for the second time in six weeks, Lackey's students took action. A group of student leaders began circulating a petition asking that driver's education classes be reinstated in the school system. In Maryland, only Garrett County offers such courses as part of its regular curriculum; three other counties offer them as an after-school program.
Lackey's petition was signed by hundreds of students, faculty and community members before it went to Charles County Board of Education.
"They made lots of suggestions," said Kathy Levanduski, the board's chair. "But in the end, the cost factor is astronomical, and it was pulled out of the schools because of the cost."
Andrew Krajewski, director of driver education at the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration, said such petition efforts reach his office fairly regularly whenever there is a rash of fatal accidents in a particular area. Krajewski's office focuses on improving the quality of education in private driving schools.
When driver's ed was still in the public schools, students generally took the course over a semester -- about 15 weeks. At one hour per school day, the classroom time works out to 75 hours, or 2 1/2 times what is required now.
"Education is only step one," Krajewski said. "Step two is plenty of driving experience under supervision. And third, you need parental guidance. Parents have to know they have control over the vehicle."
Some experts say rookie drivers often exercise poor control over their vehicles.
"Young drivers are novices," says Dr. Robert Sternberg, a professor of psychology and education at Yale. "And there are certain fallacies that make them feel like experts, even if they're smart. One is egocentricity. Another is they don't think about the long-term consequences of what they do, such as drinking and driving. Another is what I call omniscience: They think they know everything.
"If you have kids, you've been through it. They aren't old enough to know how much they don't know. Then there's the sense of invulnerability. Bad things happen to other people, but not to them."
Athletes may be even more susceptible, Sternberg said, "because the same things that make them a good athlete -- that aggressiveness and willingness to take risks -- can put them at risk in other domains. When you combine their novice status, plus these fallacies, plus a teenager's propensity to risk anyway, that's where you end up with an extra susceptibility to accidents."
Traffic accidents are the leading cause of death among Maryland residents from the ages of 15 to 20. The same holds true nationally. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, about 5,000 teenagers of driving age die in auto accidents every year nationwide.
The search for explanations can be maddening. It can compel a father like Larry Pion to make the lonely hour-long drive from his home to the crash site six times in six months. It can make Nancy Pion, so strict with her children that other kids called her "The Warden," blame herself for Dustin's death. It can convince lawmakers to propose new legislation and psychologists to propose new theories.
For the past five years Maryland state Sen. Roy Dyson has sponsored a bill in the Maryland Senate that would prohibit rookie drivers from driving with other teen passengers in the car. Twenty-one states already have similar laws, according to a spokesman for Dyson, a Democrat who represents the district that includes Charles, Calvert and St. Mary's counties -- the area where Hoppe, Marcheggiani, the Davis siblings, Wade, Graham, Pion and Wells lived. All of them died in cars driven by 16- or 17-year-olds with at least one and as many as three teenage passengers.
According to Lon Anderson, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic who spoke in favor of Dyson's bill at a Feb. 4 Senate hearing, a new teen driver is five times more likely to crash when there are other teens in the car.
"It's a critical factor," said Anderson, who tried unsuccessfully to get a similar provision into Maryland's new "graduated licensing" system for new drivers that was implemented in 1999.
"In many cases, the driver is anxious to show off his or her skills. They're Mario Andretti out there after driving for two weeks. Clearly, the conversation between teens in the car becomes more fascinating than what is going on the road."Steve Terrell does not recall the conversation that took place in Scott Hoppe's car as they drove down Route 5 between their homes in the Golden Beach neighborhood of Mechanicsville and the St. Charles Towne Center Mall in Waldorf. But it almost certainly wasn't about road conditions.
Traveling northbound on Route 5, just south of Route 231, Hoppe's car passed a sign saying "Speed Limit 50," a reduction from the standard 55 on that highway. The road curves to the left at a spot where the median ends and the divided highway becomes a single four-lane highway. It is a spot where rainwater is known to collect during sudden rainstorms, like the one that hit the area around 4 p.m. that afternoon.
Hoppe's car hit that rainwater, hydroplaned, and smashed into a car traveling in the opposite direction. The impact was on the driver's side, Hoppe's side and the side of Marcheggiani, who was seated behind him. The car came to rest just across the road from a street sign that reads, "Teddy Bear Place."
This time, two houses received knocks on the door.
One house, Cheryl Terrell's, got a phone call, beckoning her to the scene.
"How my son survived, I'll never know," she said of her Steve. "If you could have seen that car . . . It was like God dropped a box around my son.
"Every window was broken out except the one next to my son. He got 48 stitches, and two boys lost their lives.
"It's still hard for me to talk about it. I keep asking myself, 'Why am I the lucky one?' But I am the lucky one."Larry and Nancy Pion were not as fortunate.
Dustin died being a good friend, agreeing grudgingly to bring Tiffany Wells back from Ocean City to Waldorf in the middle of the night, a drive of about 2 1/2 hours, so she could be with her boyfriend, who also was Dustin's best friend. Dustin's intent was to sleep in the passenger's seat on the way to Waldorf, then drive himself back to Ocean City. Because both had provisional licenses, neither was supposed to be driving between midnight and 5 a.m.
Dustin had had his provisional license for about seven months. He aced the driving classes. "But my husband and I took him out," Nancy Pion says, "and we were the ones who decided whether he was ready to drive or not." They had done the same thing with their older son, Larry Jr., now a Marine stationed in Hawaii.
In those seven months, the Pions had taken away Dustin's driving privileges several times when neighbors spotted him speeding out of the neighborhood.
"We were tough on him," Larry Pion says, "but we did everything in our power to develop trust in him and let him grow up. . . . When we said he had to be home by 11, he walked in that door at 11 or there were consequences to pay.
"We had to be on him all the time. You've got to understand, Dustin was a great kid. But he was a kid."
One day after the school year ended, Dustin asked if he could go to Ocean City for "Senior Week," which is just what it sounds like: a week of drinking and debauchery, but a rite of passage for generations of Maryland teens.
Nancy Pion said no. You're not ready for that.
Two weeks later, Dustin asked if he could go to a wrestling tournament, also in Ocean City.
Her "mom alert" going off, Nancy Pion told her son, "I want to see documentation."
Dustin produced a tournament entry form showing the dates and the location: Ocean City.
The boy just loved to wrestle, and he was good. He made the state tournament as a junior, and his coaches were beginning to think he had a shot at winning it all this year.
"As soon as the season was over, he was calling up guys to try to get them to go to tournaments," said Steve Roberts, Westlake's wrestling coach.
"It was neat to see. It was the type of leadership I'd never seen in all my years as a coach, from anybody. He spent all his free time on the wrestling mat. . . . He was a great individual. It's tough to say enough about how great a kid he was."
But the Ocean City entry form was a fake, concocted by finding a real entry form on the Internet and changing the dates and location, then printing it.
Not quite satisfied, Nancy talked to some of the other kids who were planning to go to Ocean City. They lied for Dustin.
Going to Ocean City "is like a ritual," said Matt Windsor, 16, a friend, neighbor and wrestling teammate of Dustin's. He was not involved in the trip that resulted in Dustin's death. "Every time I go that way now I think about him. There are a lot of what-ifs. I hit a mailbox the first week I had my learner's permit. It makes you think. But there's a feeling: 'What's going to stop me?' After something like this, it brings you back down: 'Hey, you're not invincible. Something can always stop you.' "
On the day of the trip, Nancy Pion packed her son some fruit, sodas and chips, and made sure he had his toothbrush. They exchanged hugs. He pulled out of the driveway and yelled "I love you, Mom."
"You think you're on top of your kids," she says now, "but they can slip by. Part of me just shakes my head. Why? Why? We were just starting to get him to try to tell the truth. Dustin told half-truths. Then this. It's pretty hard to take, and I feel I'm responsible for that. We couldn't get through to him."
Mom blames herself for the lie. Dad blames himself for the car. "Maybe it was a little too much car for him," he says.
Never mind the truck parked illegally. Never mind the kids' bad judgment in driving in the middle of the night. Never mind whatever it was that brought that car and that truck and those two sleepy kids together at that exact spot, at that exact time, to shatter the quiet of dawn.