Corey Lepore was pumping gas, his mind on his midnight curfew, when the woman approached. • He didn't know her, but he noticed the pajamas she wore and the snacks she carried and the recognition that washed over her when she noticed the back window of his Jeep. • White angel wings, and a decal: Rest in Peace Joey Ruzecki, Keith MacCollom, Nate Richardson, LeShawn Smith. • "I'm sorry about your friends," she told Corey. • "It stinks," he said. "It's pretty sucky." • "If you know that survivor, let him know that I hope he's okay." • "I am the survivor." • Corey doesn't have words to describe her face, just that it changed and she started to cry. The stranger walked to him and wrapped her arms around his 6-foot-4 frame and squeezed hard. • "You're so lucky."
• • •
At 18, Corey is a member of a confusing and exclusive club, one with cosmic questions that go unanswered, guilt that lingers and hurt that never disappears. He was spared. His friends were not. He will spend his life wondering why.
He feels bad talking about it, because the simple fact is, he lived. But that doesn't make it easier.
The car crash happened on April 10, 2009, Good Friday.
He remembers lying in a driveway, heat from the burning car stinging his face.
"I remember the heat. I can still . . ." He put a hand to his cheek. "You know how if you get something out of the oven and you get your head close?"
He woke up next in an ambulance. He saw what seemed like hundreds of blood-stained paper towels.
"I was like, 'Oh my God, what is wrong with my face?' " The paramedic told him he had been in a bad accident, that he had gone through the windshield. Corey asked about his friends, over and over through the sounds of the radio dispatches.
Finally, Corey said, the medic told him the driver didn't make it.
Then another friend.
The boys were together that night. Corey had picked up LeShawn Smith and Nate Richardson and went to Keith MacCollom's house. Joey Ruzecki came over. They played Madden on Xbox. They trash-talked and ordered pizza.
They were teenagers, filling out from gangly to handsome. They loved Cocoa Puffs and Fruit Roll-Ups and their families and girls. They lifted weights and planned to become lawyers and FBI agents.
Joey drove his four friends down 86th Avenue N, heading to his house. Corey was in the passenger seat, where he normally rode because he was the biggest. Nate, Keith and LeShawn were in the back.
Corey said they were speeding, but not as fast as everyone thinks.
Richard Goltl, 43, who works in plant operations at the St. Petersburg Times, was heading home from a bar where he had beers with a friend. Blood drawn an hour and 25 minutes after the crash showed alcohol levels below the legal limit. Joey was sober, driving behind him.
Corey remembers Goltl starting to turn right, then making a wide left. He says Joey hit the gas and veered to avoid a crash. The Florida Highway Patrol report says Goltl turned properly and that Joey was at fault for trying to pass.
The cars collided. Joey's car hit a tree and caught fire. All the boys were ejected except Joey, who was wearing a seat belt.
"I'm going to be honest with you," said Seminole High principal Walter Weller. "That was beyond comprehension. It was one of the most sad things. My heart just broke. There were things I don't even want to describe."
All the boys went to Seminole High except LeShawn, who went to Largo High. Hundreds of their classmates came to the scene that night, and Seminole administrators filed them into the school auditorium to process the deaths with grief counselors and chaplains.
But nobody mourns for the one who survives.
• • •
There are others like him.
There is Nick Schuyler, who famously survived a 2009 Gulf of Mexico boat accident with NFL players. Ben Cauley, the only survivor of the 1967 plane crash that killed Otis Redding. There is Bahia Bakari, a French schoolgirl who survived a 2009 Indian Ocean plane crash that killed 152 people, including her mother. French media called her "miracle girl."
Corey's mother, Kim Brown, spent sleepless nights on Facebook trying to contact Schuyler.
"It was a desperate attempt. . . . I wanted to find someone who knew what Corey was going through. How many people have lost that many people at once?"
It's confusing for survivors to go back into the world.
"Most people are left to fend for themselves," said Ellen MacKenzie, a public health professor at Johns Hopkins University whose research on trauma helped form the Trauma Survivors Network. "There is not much attention paid to the psychosocial consequences — depression, anxiety, the flashbacks, the post-traumatic stress disorder."
It bothers Corey when people so easily decide he is fortunate.
"They say, 'You're so lucky,' " Corey said. "You don't know what I'm going through. That's what gets me frustrated. You have no idea what I'm going through."
Corey was born Sept. 24, 1991. Kim Brown and Corey's dad, Don Lepore, split when Corey was a baby, but the three remained close, even moving to Florida together so Corey would have them both. Kim Brown married Corey's stepdad, Tom Brown, when Corey was 8. His sister Grace was born three years later.
Corey met Joey and Keith at Bauder Elementary and became part of a group of kids who played sports and ran through yards.
"They've been together since kindergarten because the schools are so close," said John Ruzecki, Joey's father. "They knew everybody. Everybody knew our sons."
At first, Corey relished everything about Seminole High, where he fit in and charmed teachers. His grades were far from perfect and he had trouble focusing, but he felt like he had other strengths. He was good with people, good at sports, good at life.
He wanted to go to college and figure out his plans.
• • •
People gossiped that Corey was hanging on for dear life in the hospital. The truth was not ideal, but better.
He had facial cuts, a double broken arm, a separated shoulder, two broken ribs, a partially collapsed lung, a chipped tooth, a chipped wing bone and a displaced disc in his back and a concussion.
He gave only one interview from his hospital bed that Sunday, to ABC Action News. He had a neck brace, bruised face and vacant eyes. He was draped with Keith's jersey and LeShawn's jacket and the headrest from Joey's car. He only did the interview to tell people Joey wasn't drinking.
He visited the tree at the crash site that Monday but didn't say anything. He went to all four funerals and clenched his jaw and sat in the front.
They're just on vacation, he thought. They'll be back.
After the crash, a couple of friends started calling Corey "Superman." At first it was cute. Then everyone was doing it. Corey couldn't stand the thought of being called Superman, like he was a superior creature to his friends. He went on MySpace.
Don't call me Superman. I'm not. I just want my friends back.
Back at school, strangers wore his name on T-shirts and arm bands. In class, he constantly felt eyes. When he would look up, they would dart away. There was no avoiding people's curiosity.
Weeks passed, and the shirts and arm bands faded. The burden increased for Corey.
Before the crash, he had a summer job at Raymond James, where his mom works, pushing a food tray through cubicles and saying, "snack cart!" in a nasal voice to make people laugh. But after the crash, catching up on school became a job. The pressure, coupled with the flashbacks and constant reminders, was intense.
Each day for four months, Corey awoke, opened his eyes and thought of his friends. Then he went to the bathroom and threw up.
The community tried to heal. In June, people gathered around the tree and watched workers slice it away. Friends and family said they would make coffee tables and ornaments with the pieces of wood.
Corey wasn't there. He was visiting his grandparents in New York. As the tree fell, Corey's mom opened a text message from her son. He was throwing up again, he told her.
Later that night, he texted again. His friends' favorite songs had come on the radio that day. They're saying hello, his mom wrote. They texted until 2 a.m. She sent lyrics to a song she sang him at bedtime, a song he officially asked her to stop singing when he was 8, when that kind of thing gets embarrassing.
You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy when skies are gray.
"I just sat on the couch bawling my eyes out trying to see the little keys to text it," she said. "It was the only way I knew he would know how much he was loved. It was the only way I could hug him."
thanks, i love you so much mom, i'm going to sleep now.
• • •
Corey looks and sounds normal. He does virtual school in the morning and regular classes in the afternoon. He can function, swish a ball through a net and free his hearty laugh when it feels right.
But something happened during the crash.
"It's almost like things drop out of his brain," his mother said. "You don't know what it's going to be.''
He twirls his car keys and sometimes can't remember where he put them. He gets fidgety when forced to sit for long periods, tapping his knee or twisting napkins or moving his feet back and forth. He panics before tests.
Before, you couldn't rile him off the couch. Now he gets angry. He shattered an iPhone. He punched his bedroom door.
"I don't know how far to push," Brown said. "I don't know if I'm dealing with a teenager. I don't know how much is the accident."
Doctors diagnosed Corey with a traumatic brain injury and a cognitive disorder caused by the crash, as well as attention deficit disorder that may have always been there, but mild. Now it's strong. Medications have helped.
He gets piercing flashbacks and has to leave class. He gets in trouble for roaming the halls and coming late, he said, and has to serve detention or five-hour in-school suspension. When he disappoints teachers, he wonders if, in some dark place, they think the other kids should have lived and he should have died.
Corey's mom asked the other boys' parents for help. He had stayed close to them, giving the moms silver heart pendants for Mother's Day with the boys' names inscribed. He visited them sometimes. They made sure to smile, but he could sense their sadness.
They represented the ultimate guilt.
The parents staged an intervention at Corey's therapy session, ducking around the parking lot so he wouldn't see them, sharing a genuine laugh for the first time since the crash.
They went inside and met him. The therapist explained to Corey the reasons why he lived, breaking it to down to logistics — his size, where he sat in the car, how he landed.
The parents leveled with him. His teachers did not wish him dead. It wasn't his fault for picking up Nate and LeShawn that night. It was fine to laugh again.
"Do I wish that Keith was here?" Elaine MacCollom said. "Absolutely. Do I feel bad that you're here? No. And I don't want you to waste this."
After the meeting, he stopped throwing up.
• • •
The reminders are everywhere.
On the back of his car. On the dog tag he wears around his neck and the bracelet he wears on his wrist.
His friends' nicknames are frosted onto Corey's basketball hoop. He keeps the boys' framed funeral programs across from his bed, and a chunk of fence from the accident scribbled with marker beside his bed: It was a Good Friday we'll never 4get.
"It's always something," he said. "Everything goes back to them."
Corey hopes to graduate this year, maybe get a summer job at the mall and go to college in Orlando, where the friends had talked about going together. He recently came one point shy of scoring high enough on the ACT to move on with his life.
So he signed up again.
The test is April 10. The anniversary of the crash.
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8857.