A police chase, a brain-damaged child, a family changed for ever
She never saw it coming. There was no boom. No crash. No crunch of metal on metal like in the movies.
It was just Filsan Duale and five children in the minivan — four of her own plus a friend they took go-karting — heading to their home in northern Virginia on December 27. Then total blackness, and Duale opened her eyes and there was blood and broken glass everywhere.
Her two-year-old was bleeding. The boys were all slashed up. Her five-year-old was dazed and cut up, too. But the minivan’s third row was empty. Her 12-year-old daughter was gone. “What happened? Is everyone alive? Amran? Where is Amran?”, Duale said she remembered thinking.
Amran, her precocious, lively sixth-grader was crumpled on the road, limp and scraped raw. The impact of the pick-up truck T-boning them during a frenetic Fairfax County, Virginia, police chase — one that is now under investigation for the way it was conducted and the damage it has done — launched Amran through a window, to the street, where she skidded down Frying Pan Road on her face.
Her skull was fractured, her facial bones broken. Duale, 38, who was also cut up and had a broken wrist, tried to lunge towards her daughter. But the paramedics had just arrived, and they swarmed the girl amid screams and the crunch of shattered glass.
That was more than two months ago.
Now her 12-year-old, who rode her bike to school and played football, grunts and sighs as she spends hours learning to put one foot in front of the other again at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore.
The four other children are back in school in Herndon, Virginia. They hate being in the car, Duale said, and they will all have scars for the rest of their lives. But they will recover from the physical wounds.
Amran may never be the same.
She spent two weeks in a coma. Her sixth-grade teacher came in and sat by her bedside, and painted her nails. When she woke up on January 10, she was devastated that her long hair had been shaved off, but did not understand how her nails got so pretty.
She misses school — her friends and books and classes. Amran, who wants to be a teacher, was popular and chatty, and jumped rope at recess with the other girls. She loved art class, but her best subject was maths.
Her new curriculum, in these long, exhausting days, covers standing, walking and concentrating. It takes everything she has to take a small beanbag from a therapist’s hand while balancing on one leg. Two people have to hold her steady when she does this.
After an obstacle course of buckets, beanbags and rings that looks as though it is set up for a toddler, the teen crumples in exhaustion. “That was hard,” she tells her physical therapist.
“When can I ride a bike again? I want to ride a bike!” she says, before tipping over on a mattress.
Amran’s skull was fractured, but it was her brain being slammed around that did the real damage, said her doctor, Michelle Melicosta.
Amran was in terrible shape after the accident, a 3 on the Glasgow-Coma scale of 3 to 15, which means she was as low as it is possible to be without being dead.
Now Melicosta said she was “thrilled with Amran’s progress”.
Amran cannot see out of her right eye, and she still uses a feeding tube to eat and a tracheotomy tube to breathe, but she is making progress towards getting rid of both.
Her family has been devastated, too, every shred of normalcy taken from them. During the week, Duale lives at the hospital with Amran while her husband, Moustapha Djama, who runs Loudoun County’s public transportation system, manages the three other children. On the weekends, they switch.
“It was just all for a truck. A police officer was chasing a truck that was stolen from over at the storage place,” Duale told me, in a whisper, outside Kennedy Krieger’s physical therapy room. “Everything in our lives is different now because of a truck.”
According to Fairfax County police, the man driving the truck, Brandon Stefon Vinson, 28, rang the doorbell of a random house in Centreville, Virginia, on December 27 and allegedly punched the girl who opened it.
Then he jumped into a car that had been reported stolen earlier that day in Hyattsville, Maryland, and took off, police said.
Vinson allegedly slammed into a pick-up truck, assaulted that driver and took off in the truck. That is when police spotted him and began the chase.
“They went through four red lights. Four,” Duale said, holding up four fingers to emphasise how long and dangerous the chase was.
“And then he hit us. I never saw him coming,” she said. “The light just turned green, and I was slowly starting to roll and then, then it just went black.”
Fairfax Police said they were still investigating whether the chase was justified.
A couple of weeks after the crash, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors began reviewing guidelines designed to clarify when and whether police should be in a high-speed chase.
“Officers, controlling pursuit supervisors, and commanders must always balance the need for immediate apprehension with the dangers created by the pursuit, especially relating to the sanctity of preservation of all human life,” reads the 45-page draft the board reviewed in January.
If they do not think the suspect is going to kill someone or himself, police should end the pursuit and get a warrant, according to the draft policy.
The county reported 134 police pursuits in 2016, up from 119 in 2015, and 115 in 2014, according to a WTOP report.
When I looked for national statistics, I found an analysis released last year by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. It found that an average of 355 people were killed annually between 1996 and 2015 in crashes related to police pursuits.
Meanwhile, Amran’s family are struggling with medical costs that their insurance does not cover. Those have soared to more than $100,000, which is why they have started a GoFundMe site. The coverage for Amran’s therapy at Kennedy Krieger will run out in a couple of weeks. Then Duale will bring her home, where she will be in charge of her daughter’s progress.
Some day Duale hopes to be able to drive again. Her husband has been driving. But every time she gets back into a car — even when she is a passenger — she flinches, shudders and remembers the blackness, then all that blood.
• Petula Dvorak is a columnist for The Washington Post’s local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things
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