STOUGHTON — The last time Solange Bell talked to her 17-year-old son, David, he was riding in his friend’s car, excited about a paintball game birthday party in Bridgewater. It was wet and chilly for May, but they’d warm up fast running through the woods, leaping obstacles, sweating in their tactical gear and hoodies.
They were nine teenagers piled into two cars, thinking of the shots they’d take and dodge, and reassuring their fretting parents by phone that yes, they would be safe.
Back at home, David had stacks of letters from colleges interested in him for his high PSAT scores: Yale, Boston College, Rutgers. He had big plans for his life — he’d be a football player in the NFL, then a commentator. And if that didn’t work out, he’d be a lawyer. Plan A, Plan B. “I’m gonna be somebody,” he would tell his father.
They were all going to be somebody. One of David’s best friends, 16-year-old Nick Joyce, was going to be the first member of his family to graduate from a four-year college. Christopher Desir, 17, had survived Haiti’s 2010 earthquake and built a life in Massachusetts with his mother. They were all celebrating Eryck Sarblah’s 17th birthday — he was a talented runner and photographer, a jokester who loved his church and family.
Solange and her husband, also named David, worried about their son driving around with other teenagers. “Kids driving kids,” she said. They had stalled letting him get a car of his own. And on Saturday, May 19, it was cloudy and spitting rain. She asked to speak to his friend who was behind the wheel.
“Drive carefully,” she told him.
“Yes, mama,” the boy replied. “Always.”
The teenagers got to P&L Paintball in the early afternoon on Saturday, May 19, shouting and laughing and chest-bumping each other. Eryck’s mom, Shirley Sarblah, came with them and brought her two younger children; she paid for the kids to play and then sat back to wait.
She knew most of them well. They called her “Mom.” The tight-knit group of friends hung out at her house often, playing basketball in the driveway and eating the ribs and rice she cooked for them at Eryck’s urging. Her son was a good host, cleaning up before his friends came over, making sure they felt at home. Eryck was a responsible kid, his parents said, with a job at an indoor trampoline park and plans to go to college to study the photography he loved.
But like all parents, they had faced new fears as he grew older, more independent. They worried about him riding in cars with young, inexperienced drivers. “If someone is speeding, if you’re uncomfortable,” his mother said she often told him, “get out, call me, and I’ll come and pick you up.”
The teenagers spent a couple of hours playing paintball, darting and weaving through trees playing Capture the Flag; clambering around a weathered two-story Western “Ghost Town” that looked like something out of a John Wayne movie; and zipping behind funky dark blue obstacles on the “Bottlecap” field.
Sometime before 4 p.m., once they had exhausted their energy and their ammo, they stripped off their gear and headed for their cars. They were starving, Eryck told his mom; they wanted to go have dinner at one of their favorite places, Buffalo Wild Wings at the Westgate Mall in Brockton. OK, Shirley Sarblah told him, and gave him some money before she headed home to Stoughton with his 13-year-old sister and his little brother, 6. Nick called his dad and asked for permission to go too. Yes, his father told him.
With one car following another, the teenagers steered west down a gently curving two-lane road in East Bridgewater, presumably toward the highway that could take them to their destination. They never arrived.
The boys were classmates at Stoughton High School. David, Nick, and Eryck all ran track; David and Nick played on the football team, where David was looking at making captain as a senior. He had decorated his bright orange varsity letter with captain pins for both football and basketball, which he’d played since he was 9 years old.
In school, David loved history. After school, he loved the gym. He was planning to spend his summer attending football camps at Boston College and Bryant University, and he had recently discovered a passion — and talent — for running.
It was his first season ever of track, and he ran with Nick. So far, Nick had the edge — he was ranked No. 2 in the 100 meters, his brother said — but David was trying to close the gap.
The boys trained together after practice, building their leg muscles with hills and weights during what they called their “after-workout workouts,” said Nick’s brother, Richard Joyce Jr., 30. They were competitive, but never jealous — they were gregarious and sunny, and their rivalry made them faster.
Nick was just coming into his own as a runner, his brother recalled. When he wasn’t in the gym or goofing off with David, Nick hung with Richard, shooting baskets in the driveway, tossing the football, or playing video games like “Madden NFL” and “Fortnite,” and talking about life.
Nick was a popular kid, the first on the dance floor at any party, and the girls loved him, Richard said. He loved graphic design and was always sketching shoes. And he was a member of Fruition Scholars at school, a tutoring and mentoring program where students are encouraged to take Advanced Placement and honors courses.
“He was focused, he was determined,” said Richard.
Nick wasn’t yet sure where he wanted to go to college, though letters of interest had begun arriving at his house from colleges impressed by his athletic prowess. He was the youngest of a close-knit family: In addition to his brother Richard, he had a 22-year-old sister and a 26-year-old brother, and all the siblings were living at home with their parents in Stoughton.
His sister had asked him to pick a school in-state, so she wouldn’t miss him too much.
But on that Saturday, the boys’ concerns were more immediate: paintball, dinner, home. Then, on Sunday, their track team’s state championship meet in Canton.
The day before the birthday party, David had posted a video to his Instagram of himself in his black uniform standing on the rubbery red track oval. He planted his foot, rolled his shoulders, then burst forward, leaning into his liftoff for a high jump, floating for a moment above the crossbar before disappearing into the green mat beneath.
“Finally hit my PR and hit 6 feet you digggg!!!!!” he wrote. “Now it’s time for states.”
The event he was most excited about was the 100, when he and Nick would face off, the strong legs they’d honed during their extra hours in the gym carrying them past each other, trading the lead back and forth, until one of them hit the finish line first and they were best friends again.
It’s not yet been determined what happened inside the car or on the road through East Bridgewater that might have caused the crash, but Rocky Savino knows the car hit hard. Inside his house on West Street, he heard two loud crashes followed instantly by a third, thunderous boom.
Normally on a Saturday afternoon, he would have been out mowing the lawn, but it was raining so he’d stayed in with his dogs. He ran outside and looked left toward the sound of the final impact. In his neighbor’s yard, he saw the small white car: upside down, crumpled like a toy, beneath the overhanging branches of a massive tree. It hardly seemed big enough to hold five teenage boys.
It appeared the car had whipped past a 40 m.p.h. speed limit sign, flown across the eastbound lane of oncoming traffic and across a grassy area next to Savino’s yard, he said. It had gone through his yard and over his stone wall — the first crashing sound he’d heard — and continued through his neighbor’s yard and brick porch — the second crashing sound — before going airborne and slamming into the tree.
Investigators are still considering factors including speed and weather. It seemed to Savino that the car must have been traveling fast.
Another neighbor ran out of her house and pulled one of the boys out of the car, Savino said. Across the street, another car full of teenagers had stopped by the side of the road. It was the second car traveling with the boys.
As police and firefighters flooded the yard and began working with the Jaws of Life to extract the remaining teenagers from the car, two girls from the other car crossed the street.
“Are my friends dead?” one of the girls asked Savino.
When Shirley Sarblah’s phone rang, not long after the accident, she was already home. She answered it and heard one of her son’s friends crying. He was calling from the other car — the car that had not crashed. Eryck had been in an accident, the friend said.
She imagined a fender-bender. Maybe there were police there. Maybe even an arrest. “Where are they?” she asked the boy.
“Mom,” her son’s friend told her softly, “it’s bad.”
Fear gripped her then, a sudden flood of terror.
“Tell me what’s going on,” she demanded. “Is he bleeding?”
Her son’s friend didn’t answer. She could hear him crying.
“Is my son dead?”
Somehow, she got herself into the car and drove to the hospital.
Not far away in Brockton, Christopher Desir’s father, Prosper Beaubrun, was worried. When his son did not come home, or respond to his calls or texts, Beaubrun went looking for the boys at Buffalo Wild Wings, he told the Brockton Enterprise.
Waitress Adrianna Bergeron could tell he was distressed when she told him she hadn’t seen the group. “I felt bad,” Bergeron said. “Usually when people come in looking for someone, I’m like, ‘They’re right over there.’ ”
The man went outside and sat on a bench for a while — waiting, she assumed, for his son to show up. He never did, and eventually Beaubrun went home.
Not long after he arrived there, the police knocked on his door.
Eryck Sarblah, Christopher Desir, and Nick Joyce died at the scene of the accident. The 17-year-old driver of the car, whom officials have not named, survived, and was taken to Good Samaritan Hospital in Brockton and then Boston Medical Center.
David Bell lived just long enough to make it to Brockton Hospital, where his mother came to identify his body.
He had always promised her that when he made it as a professional football player, he would buy her a house. Solange Bell always laughed at that, she said — she didn’t need a mansion, she’d tell her son, she was happy right where she was.
But David had everything lined up. He had even been talking marriage with the girl he’d been dating since eighth grade and had given her a promise ring. His life was ready to unfold ahead of him in perfect order.
Now, Solange Bell looked at her son’s still body.
“I love you,” she told him. “I’m so sorry this happened to you.”
She rubbed his legs. He was so big, she thought, her 6’2” son, so strong. The boy she refused to let buy a car; the boy who danced on tables at house parties; the boy who was going to be somebody. He still looked ready to take on the world.Evan Allen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @evanmallen. Jenna Russell can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @jrussglobe.