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Tragic day leaves anguish, bitterness

March 29, 1998|By BRENDAN KIRBY

by Joe Crocetta / staff photographer

see the enlargement by clicking the image

David Sands remembered

Memorial Day 1997 was supposed to be a night of food, music and fun for David Sands and his girlfriend, Susan Kim Sigler.

For John Paul Pencola and his brother, James Andrew Pencola, the holiday was supposed to be a day off from school and a chance to shoot some hoops.

But in the span of a few seconds, their paths crossed - and their lives will never be the same.

Now, 10 months after a traffic accident claimed Sands' life, the day holds anguish for both families.

Sigler said she passes the spot on Rohrersville Road where the accident occurred nearly every day. She said she feels a pit in her stomach when she passes the spot, which is now marked by a small memorial to her 47-year-old boyfriend, who was one of the drivers.

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But Sigler said she must pass it on the way to doctor's appointments.

She stopped counting at about 170 in December.

For Pencola, 18, the other driver, that day also brought grief. His 14-year-old brother, a passenger in his vehicle, was severely injured and the effects linger.

The investigation of the crash ended with two charges against Pencola: failure to drive right of center and negligent driving.

The combined fine was $190.

Sigler said she thinks that that is unacceptable.

"My boyfriend's life is worth more than that," she said. "You get more of a fine if you throw trash out."

Although he said he cannot remember the crash, Pencola, a student at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, points to police reports that he says confirm there was no malevolent intent.

"Obviously, it was an accident. I feel very bad about it," he said.

May 26, 1997, was a clear day. The temperature reached a high of 73 degrees and the showers that would come that evening were still hours away.

Pencola and his brother had just played a game of basketball at a court about a mile from the accident; Sigler and Sands were on their way to see a country music act in Boonsboro.

Pencola's southbound Jeep Wrangler and Sands's northbound pickup truck collided on an open stretch of Rohrersville Road, also known as Md. 67, about seven miles south of Boonsboro.

Sigler suffered massive head trauma, a broken jaw, a shattered foot and injuries to her eye and nose in the accident.

She said she has cataracts in both eyes and is deaf in one ear. She has had six accident-related surgeries in the last nine months, with at least three more to go.

Sigler, 39, said she had found her true love in Sands, who operated heavy equipment for the city of Gaithersburg, Md. Both coming off divorces, Sigler said they met in December 1996.

David Sands RememberedSigler said they clicked immediately, sharing an affinity for music and old cars.

Sands was a talented musician. He sang and played guitar for the Rambling Fever 10 years ago and sill performed at picnics, Sigler said.

"He really knew how to sing," she said.

One moment, they were on their way to the Great Boonsboro Carnival, to catch a performance of the Kentucky HeadHunters. The next, Sands was dead.

"I don't remember the crash itself. But I remember being dragged out of the truck," she said. "I remember them pulling me out of there and watching my boyfriend die."

Sands' daughter, Leslee Sands, 25, said she remembers a telephone operator calling to give her a phone number, which turned out to be for a counselor at Washington County Hospital.

Leslee Sands' wedding day is May 9, just a few weeks shy of the anniversary of her father's death. She lamented that he will not be able to give her away at the ceremony.

According to the Maryland State Police report, Pencola's Jeep was traveling south on Maryland 67 when it crossed over the center line and collided head-on with Sands' pickup truck.

No one was wearing their seat belts, which could have lessened the injuries, according to police.

Sands died at the scene. Sigler and Pencola were flown to Washington County Hospital.

Pencola's brother was thrown from the Jeep. He was taken to Washington County Hospital by ambulance and later flown to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.

Both Sigler and Sands said they were shocked when they learned the total penalty would be $190.

Washington County State's Attorney M. Kenneth Long Jr. said he did not want to discuss specifics of the case since Pencola's traffic charges are pending. He has not yet paid the fine.

Generally, he said, state law requires vehicular homicide charges to be filed if drugs or alcohol play a role in a fatal traffic accident. They did not in this case, according to investigators.

An automobile manslaughter charge also could be lodged, depending on the driver's conduct.

"There has to be evidence," he said. "You have to prove gross negligence - a willful and wanton disregard for the safety and life of another person."

Speed, time of the accident and traffic conditions are considered factors in determining gross negligence.

"People drift across the center line," Long said. "That's not gross negligence."

Sigler and Sands said they want the law changed to allow prosecutors to file criminal charges when negligence results in a traffic death. The "gross negligence" standard is too high, they said.

"It just really slapped us in the face," Sands said.

Pencola said the last thing he remembers is pulling back onto the road after shooting baskets with his brother.

The court was less than a mile from his house on Gapland Road and he expected to be home within minutes.

"The next memory I had was in the emergency room," he said.

Pencola said his injuries included a broken nose, a bruised sternum and a damaged spleen.

Pencola said his brother drifted in and out of a coma for four months with a head injury. He attends regular rehabilitation sessions and is doing better, Pencola said.

Pencola said the wreck was an accident.

"They're definite it was an accident," he said.

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