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28 August 2007

Update on Prep Star David Firth
Survivor of Fatal Car Wreck Killing Coach
Returning Home from JSU Summer Camp

North Oconee Senior Haunted
by Memory of Fatal Wreck

Tuesday, August 28, 2007
From Staff Reports
The Huntsville Times

Reprinted here in its entirety.

  |     |   Story updated at 11:39 PM on Sunday, August 26, 2007

North Oconee High School senior David Firth had the support of his parents, Jan and Mark Firth, after he was involved in a car crash in June that killed assistant basketball and football coach Shawn Smith and injured two of his classmates. - Kelly Lambert / Staff

Of all of David Firth's memories, his most vivid is one he wishes he could forget. But it's impossible for him to erase the most tragic thing that has happened in his life.

On June 24, the North Oconee senior was involved in a car wreck that killed his assistant basketball coach and injured two of his teammates. Somehow, some way, David walked away without any physical injuries.

However, he has emotional scars that probably will linger for years.

North Oconee assistant basketball and football coach Timothy "Shawn" Smith was driving three of his senior basketball players - David, Andrew Landers and Ja'Rius Ross - back from a basketball camp in Jacksonville, Ala., when a tractor-trailer jackknifed into the eastbound lane of Interstate 20 and hit Smith's car.

With the football season about to kick off this Friday, the team's quarterback and leader is the only one who remembers the frightening events that happened that night.

"For the last few months, I've relived it a few times," David said. "It was a shocking and terrible day. It was scary."

The wreck

David and the Titans basketball team were participating in a basketball camp at Jacksonville State University from June 22-24.

The team had just finished up competition on Sunday with three straight victories. The Titans dispersed from the camp in separate cars, some with parents and others with coaches. David, Drew and Ja'Rius rode to and from the camp with coach Smith.

When leaving Alabama, Smith got on the highway going west instead of east and had to turn around. His car was trailing the other vehicles from North Oconee by about 20 minutes, David said.

They got back on the interstate. It started to rain.

"It was raining really, really hard, and I couldn't see much," David said. "I just heard coach Smith and Drew panic. I saw the truck come across the median. I thought we were going to hit it, so I ducked my head."

In the moments after the wreck, David - still inside the car - stood up. The top of Smith's car was gone. Nobody else was moving or talking.

"I was asking if everybody was OK," David said. "Then Ja'Rius started to move. I saw that his teeth were messed up. We got out of the car and somebody pulled over and was helping us and called the police. We were holding shirts on Drew's head (to help stop the bleeding)."

Drew and coach Smith were unresponsive, David said. His teammate began to breathe, but Smith did not.

The first person David called was North Oconee head basketball coach Hal Wilson. His next call was to his mother, Jan Firth.

The phone call was horrible, Jan recalls, but under the circumstances, her son handled it well.

"He did amazingly well conveying that things were bad, but he was OK," she said. "He kept saying, 'I'm OK mom. I'm OK.' He told me at that time that coach Smith wasn't OK. He said 'Drew's bad, but he's breathing.' I said I was going to come, and he didn't want me to."

David's father, Mark Firth, was in New York for a work meeting. He received the phone call from his wife, but couldn't make it back in time to drive to Alabama with her. Within 30 minutes of that first phone call, Jan and a friend were on their way to David.

Jan felt anxious on the three-hour drive to Alabama, and couldn't wait to see her son.

"Angels were parting the traffic because we were just flying," she said. "Drew's parents were following us. We had already gotten called that Drew was going to be airlifted. We didn't know if we'd get there before he was airlifted out. I was concerned with how David was. I wanted to give him the big hug and see for myself and make sure he was OK."

After reuniting, David and his mother stayed at the hospital for about an hour before heading home.

"Coming home was bad," Jan said. "The semi's were whipping by us, and I just knew that he was terribly uncomfortable being on the highway."


Drew was in intensive care at Grady after sustaining a head injury and a bruised lung, but was released later that week. Ja'Rius lost some teeth and had to undergo surgery to repair and replace them.

David was not physically hurt, but the wreck and Smith's death took an emotional toll. It was hard for him to understand why he was the only one not injured.

"I was pretty confused," he said. "I didn't understand. I still don't understand. ... It was hard to believe that everything had happened."

The families of the three seniors got together in the weeks following the crash to talk about what had happened and to begin the healing process.

"I think about (Smith) every day," David said. "I miss him out on the field. I know everybody thinks about him and everybody deals with it in their own way."

David has found comfort in his family and friends in dealing with the most tragic experience he's been through. The North Oconee quarterback tried his best to keep busy, and soon after the wreck, he attended a football camp at Presbyterian College.

"I tried to keep going just the same," David said. "But I can't help thinking about it."

Jan said: "Early on, when he was trying to decide whether he should go to this camp or not, we talked about that coach Smith would want him to keep living," Jan said. "I think David is consciously trying to live his life different to honor coach Smith."


The 17-year-old views life differently since the wreck.

"I just learned to value life," David said. "You never know what's going to happen.

"You've just got to be thankful for every day you have and thankful for the people you have around you," he said.

David always has had a quiet nature, even in sports. As a four-year starter at quarterback and a three-year point guard at North Oconee, he has tried to lead by example. He's become a little more vocal now.

"He's been noticeably more open in the past two months," Mark said. "I think he shares his feelings a little differently. Physically, he's OK. Emotionally, he has handled things as well as we've ever hoped."

Mark keeps the article about the wreck in his desk drawer and looks at it every day.

"It just reminds me that if my day seems a little out of control, things could be worse," he said. "It's been an ongoing event, even though it's been two months. We sort of rehash it. We don't hide from it. We actually feel good talking to people. Our outcome here is David. ... We're just so fortunate. It could have been a much sadder story for us personally."

David likes to remember Smith's smile and laugh.

"He was a really good guy," he said. "He always helped every kid, no matter who you were."

At North Oconee's first home football game Sept. 7, the Titans plan to honor Smith.

The football team will wear stickers on its helmets with Smith's initials throughout the 2007 season.

"He was always upbeat," Mark said. "He loved those kids. We're very saddened by his loss and very grateful that whatever he did with that car, that all three kids are alive today."

Published in the Athens Banner-Herald on 082607

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