"You better drive, it's getting late," said 14-year-old Derek Forrest, ready to hand his dad his car keys.
"Naw, you go ahead," his dad said, climbing into the red 1988 Grand Prix. Derek's 12-year-old sister, April, lay down in the back seat.
It was 8:30 p.m., and they were only going six miles. Derek didn't have a license, but he had driven farm roads for years.
Pulling out of the driveway is the last thing Derek remembers.
Derek woke up in a hospital three days later, his foot crushed, his thigh broken, 14 teeth missing and his face bandaged. He didn't know where he was or what had happened.
Derek survived a crash that could have killed him. He spent three months in a wheelchair, and it was six months before he walked. He hated it. But he's not the type of guy to complain. When people visited he smiled, even though pulling his mouth wide made it hurt more.
Now 17, Derek graduated high school with honors in three years. He's a soft-spoken, well-mannered guy who always says thank you, always opens doors for women and girls and asks people if they want something to drink before they look thirsty.
He has had six operations in two years and now feels a calling to go into medicine.
Surviving the accident taught him a lot about life, and a lot about pain.
"I don't really like driving with people my age that are guys because mostly they want to speed and race people," Derek says. "They don't know the danger of what can happen. I do."
A life changed
The best part about visiting his dad in Johnston, S.C., was that he let him drive. Derek's granddaddy first set him on a tractor when he was 6 months old and taught him to steer when he was 6 years old, but he never let him off the dirt roads -- his dad did.
On June 26, 1995, driving 55 mph, Derek came to a blind spot in the road. At an intersection, Derek's car slammed into a car carrying three teen-agers at 35 mph. Two brothers died.
Derek's Aunt Ava drove by and saw April walking down South Caroina Highway 193, about a mile from their grandparents' house. She didn't recognize the car, but she recognized her niece and called for help.
It took rescuers, using the Jaws of Life, 45 minutes to free Derek and his father. Derek was taken by helicopter to Columbia's Richland Memorial Hospital.
April needed four stitches above her left elbow and two on her chin. The police said that there was no way April could have climbed out of the car and that if she was thrown she would have been hurt more.
Picking up the pieces
The police could have given Derek a citation for driving without a license and prevented him from driving until he was 18. But the investigating officer said that even an experienced driver couldn't have avoided the collision. Derek had the right of way and a grain field blocked the view of the crossing car. Besides, the officer said, Derek had been through enough.
"I had half my teeth gone, my leg was tore up and my face was all bandaged," Derek says, remembering when he woke up in the hospital.
He had just had braces put on his teeth three weeks before. Fourteen teeth were knocked out. Three lower teeth were picked up off the floor of the car and put back in his mouth. The bone that supports the roof of his mouth was gone.
Derek has had six surgeries on his mouth in the past two years. The most recent one was three weeks ago, and doctors are hoping that this bone graft takes and that the implants they put in will attach to the bone. He has another operation scheduled in December. Right now the whole right side of his face pounds and swells.Derek's right foot was crushed. "They had to reconstruct it, it's just pins and screws now," he says, but you can barely see the scar. He also broke his right femur (thigh bone). Pins and an external fixater held his leg together for six months.
Derek spent three weeks in a wheelchair. He knew his mom and sister understood and didn't mind helping him, but he felt like he was bothering them -- they had enough problems. "I didn't want to be a burden," he says.
April felt guilty that she didn't feel the pain Derek did, and she missed her dad. Henry Forrest suffered permanent brain damage; he lost his short-term memory and couldn't remember how old his children were or that he and their mom were divorced.
Derek started ninth grade that fall at North Augusta High School but switched to homebound studies after two weeks."My leg hurt tremendously bad," he says. "It felt like someone jabbing at you, hitting you all the time."
It hurt too much to sit in class, and he was self-conscious about the raised red scar on his face. He was having nightmares. He would close his eyes, climb into the car, pull out of the driveway and hear people screaming.
Awake, he thought about the brothers who died in the other car.
"I just hated that it had to happen to them," he says. Derek called their mother and asked to meet her at Christmas, but she never called back.
Being homebound was lonesome. Derek spent a lot of time throwing a yellow ball with his now 4-year-old cocker spaniel, Abby.
He read football magazines, watched Matlock reruns and wrestling. Derek never played football or wrestled because he had cancer, a Welm's tumor, when he was 3, and his right kidney was removed.
On the road again
The day he got the pins out of his leg, Derek's mom suggested they test drive a Camaro. Derek always liked Camaros -- they weren't going to buy it, just drive it. They went home with a hunter green '95 Camaro.
"I'm proud of it," Derek says. He washes it every two weeks; it only has 28,000 miles on it.
Getting the car showed she still had faith in Derek's driving, Donna Forrest says. And it gave Derek incentive to drive again.
He started walking in December, six months after the accident, and got his learner's permit two days after his 15th birthday, Christmas Day.
At stop signs Derek looked both ways twice. The first time he passed the intersection where the wreck had happened he slowed nearly to a stop as he drove by the newly erected yellow caution sign.
"I kept expecting something else bad to happen," Derek says.
The first day back at North Augusta High School, a guy told Derek he was going to beat him up. Derek took the false teeth out of his mouth, smiled big and told him that he'd had his leg broken and his foot crushed and he didn't think the guy was tough enough to do anything else to him.
"After that he was as nice as can be," Derek says.
That March Derek started working at Gurosik's Berry Plantation in Edgefield County. Now he's a field manager.
The doctors said he wouldn't play basketball again, but he plays pickup games with his friends.
Derek graduated in three years, ranked 15th in a class of 315 with a 3.67 G.P.A. He's majoring in nursing at the University of South Carolina Aiken, hoping to transfer to Clemson University, with the help of scholarship money. The Sertoma Club of North Augusta awarded him $1,000; the Lions Club $1,500; the Board of Realtors $500; and the Aiken County Commission on the Handicapped $500.
Now, the 1 1/2-inch scar on the right side of his mouth is fading. Derek wants to either go to medical school to become a doctor or be a nurse practitioner or a physical therapist. Every Wednesday he volunteers for two hours at University Hospital's Physical Therapy clinic helping other injured teens exercise.
"He does a lot of the things we wish he wouldn't do," jokes Quanda Ball, an 18-year-old freshman basketball player at the College of William and Mary who has been working on getting her injured knee back in shape since February.
"He just goes out of his way to help people," says physical therapist Lonnie Hergott. "He works very hard. He's a good kid."
Derek teaches Sunday school at Belvedere First Baptist Church and helps his granddaddy in his 2-acre garden in Johnston, picking peas, beans, corn and watermelon; he cuts his granddaddy's 1 1/2-acre lawn with a push mower. Derek drives there at least once a week. Slowly, safely with his seat-belt buckled.
"It made a better driver out of me," Derek says, remembering the wreck. "Cars don't have a conscience. It's not like you're riding a horse and they're not going to bump into anything intentionally. Cars, they're machines. They just do what you tell them to do."