Nearly seven years ago, 16-year-old Todd Stansfield was behind the wheel of his car when it smashed into another vehicle on a rural, two-lane road in Douglas County. Four people died. Stansfield lived. And ever since he put pen to paper after the crash, he’s been trying to use the power of his words to make sense of that horrific night.
June 18, 2004. The rural landscape washes past the car windows as the two-lane road rolls like a wave—blacktop cresting, then falling away to hundreds of feet of open asphalt. Crest. Drop. Crest. Drop.
Open fields swell around the vehicle. The last trace of sun casts a dim light over the wild grasses, which are damp from summer rain showers around Parker. Inspiration Drive shines like polished glass under the car’s headlights. Todd presses the gas pedal in his 1990 Lexus sedan. The engine roars.
Todd is behind the wheel of his new car, 10 days since he earned his license and made his dad so proud. Take the car out for the night. Be back by 11. Have fun.
Up front with Todd is 16-year-old Tony Majestic. Athletic and handsome, with short dark hair and a crooked grin, Tony can disarm nearly anyone at Ponderosa High School. He’s the class cutup, bold and brash, and his friends love him for it. A few months earlier, Tony stepped into the batter’s box during a high school baseball game and blew a kiss to the opposing pitcher. The next pitch drilled Tony in the ribs. Coach made Tony run sprints after the game, and Tony laughed the entire time.
Behind Tony, Michael Budge is the yin to the other boys’ yang. Friends with Todd since the two met in middle school, the 17-year-old prefers hanging out at his church to almost any other place. He doesn’t display the same self-consciousness that seems to preoccupy other boys his age. On weekdays after school, he’ll round up friends and take them to study, then to read from the Bible and pray. He often speaks of making a difference. While other kids talk a good game, Michael measures his life with action. The previous summer, he saved $1,000 so he could travel to Mexico for two weeks and help pour a concrete foundation for an orphanage. A few months later, he started to grow his hair out. Every week, he’d sneak up behind his mother, pluck out one of her hairs, and compare the length to his.
Next to Michael is Sean Student, the new kid in the group. He turned 17 two days earlier. At 6-feet-3-inches, 210 pounds, he’s a physical presence, the captain of an elite traveling hockey team that keeps him out of school and in the Midwest two weeks out of each month. College programs have already shown interest in him. This past season, he logged 41 goals, 43 assists, and 118 minutes in the penalty box while playing through minor injuries. Most important to his mother, Sean has a 3.8 grade point average. This summer, he’ll leave Parker for a new high school and an even more high-profile team in Iowa. For now, though, Sean just wants to concentrate on being a teenager. He wants to spend time with his friends.
Who knows what they were doing on Inspiration Drive? Years later, Todd couldn’t remember. There’d been dinner earlier in town with a bunch of other friends and talk of going to a movie. No drinking. No drugs. Just teenagers out having a good time.
The speed-limit sign reads 40 miles per hour. Todd’s foot is down. Forty-five. Fifty. Fifty-five. Sixty. Sixty-five.
Up ahead, Marvin Gilchrist is driving home. The 77-year-old former volunteer fire chief had left a friend’s house a few minutes earlier. He’d eaten dinner, had some wine, and watched the Colorado Rockies on television. He made a right onto Inspiration Drive and gained speed in the burgundy Chrysler convertible he’d bought his wife for their 50th anniversary the previous year, a few months before she died of complications from cancer.
At 8 p.m., a driver behind Gilchrist sees a pair of headlights cross into the oncoming lane. It’s like slow motion: Todd’s car skids sideways toward the convertible. The Lexus’ passenger side slams into Gilchrist’s hood, contorting the vehicles into instant heaps of tangled metal and glass. The Chrysler is blown backward onto the dirt shoulder. Gilchrist is dead.
The Lexus rolls and lands upright, next to Gilchrist’s vehicle. Michael and Tony’s side of the car is annihilated. The glass is gone. Their doors are smashed in. The roof is caved. The car catches fire.
The witness pulls off the road, gets out of his car, and rushes toward the crumpled vehicles. The twilight is broken only by the fire. He sees Michael and Tony. There aren’t any sounds as the flames reach the boys. They’re both dead. The man then runs to the other side of the Lexus and sees Todd and Sean. They’re both alive. He pulls them out of the car.
A few hundred yards away, a neighbor hears the crash. He races to the scene and sees the two bloodied boys unconscious outside the burning Lexus. He blasts the car with a fire extinguisher, but it still burns. The boys are dragged away from the vehicle.
Someone calls 9-1-1, and within minutes firefighters and Douglas County sheriff’s deputies flood the site. A paramedic intubates Sean and works on him for almost five minutes. The injuries are grim: His pelvis is fractured; his face mashed. He’s loaded into an ambulance. A few feet away, Todd’s unconscious. The paramedics strap him down and send him away too.
It took a team of doctors at Littleton Adventist Hospital nearly six hours to put Todd back together. Both of his lungs were collapsed. His neck was broken. His diaphragm was ripped. Most of his organs were pushed into his chest. He almost died on the table. Severe life-threatening injuries, not expected to survive, a doctor wrote on Todd’s file. He’s now in the hospital’s intensive care unit.
In another room, Sean is unconscious. His family is led to his bedside. Karen Student has seen her boy almost every day of his life, but now she only recognizes him from the bottoms of his size 13 feet and from his short-cropped brown hair. Both of his eyes are blackened.
The family sits and waits. By 5:45 a.m., doctors tell Sean’s family that there’s nothing more they can do. They agonize over the decision they have to make. Eventually, Sean’s parents sign some papers and Sean is taken off life support. Karen sits in a chair next to her son’s bed, holding his hand. It’s cold to the touch. It takes him 35 minutes to die. When she finally lets go, Sean’s hand is warm again.