STANWOOD — Caprice Deguzman walked down the narrow two-lane road, wet from the rain, with thick trees on both sides.
She paused along the way. She’d arrived at the spot where it all happened a decade before. She knelt down and placed poinsettias at the base of a tall metal sign shielded by black plastic.
Underneath the giant baggie was a simple message: “Please don’t drug and drive.”
Friday marked 10 years since her son, Ryan Otero, 27, survived a car crash that killed his friend, Mason Derrick, who was 19.
Three other young people were in the car and lived. It happened along 15th Avenue NE, a back road between Stanwood and Arlington.
Derrick died on impact and Otero was left paralyzed. Today he uses an electric wheelchair and tries to convince others to drive sober.
For almost a decade, Otero and Deguzman have been working with Snohomish County to place one of the black and white signs at the crash site. It was unveiled Friday.
On the afternoon of Dec. 27, 2009, Otero was at a friend’s house and needed a ride to work at Burger King. He asked Derrick.
“I don’t think he realized Mason had been smoking marijuana,” Deguzman said.
Otero and a few others got into the Acura sedan. Because Otero had about an hour before work, Derrick took the side roads.
Just before the crash the car was estimated to be traveling around 85 mph, about 50 mph above the speed limit, according to crash reports at the time.
“He hit that last dip and the car just went flying,” Deguzman said. “It started flipping and slammed up against the tree, and it rolled a couple of times up against a telephone pole.”
Two of the teenagers were ejected from the car, and another had minor injuries, Deguzman said.
“Ryan took the brunt of the impact,” she said.
He had two brain surgeries that night, because of bleeding and swelling. Part of his skull was removed. He was in a coma for more than a week.
For several months he couldn’t speak. He had to relearn how to talk, and in August — seven months later — he uttered his first word: “Hi.” Over time, he began to form more complete sentences.
Since the crash, Otero has graduated from Stanwood High School and earned a degree in human services from Skagit Valley College. He now works in the teen center at the Stanwood-Camano YMCA, and has dedicated much of his time to volunteering.
He and his mother also speak three to five times each month at high schools and to other groups, including victims’ panels. Deguzman estimates they’ve reached 100,000 people.
Otero plans to keep telling his story.
“I know that my voice is still needed, I know I’m not done,” he said. “More people need to listen. My words have to get out.”
The sign along 15th Avenue NE serves as a reminder to those who pass by.
Friday morning, a gray winter day, a group of about a dozen people gathered there. Some were first responders to the crash, others were family.
Deguzman stood beneath the large covered sign, and read aloud a note from Derrick’s parents. They’ve since moved away from the area.
In the months before Derrick died he had graduated from Stanwood High School and joined the Army.
“From that moment on our lives were changed forever, for your family and ours,” Deguzman read. “Mason was the light of his mother Melanie’s life, and we all hope to see him again.”
After Deguzman shared the message, her husband and Otero’s stepfather, Pete Deguzman, used scissors to remove the plastic wrap. Under the large sign are two others that are smaller.
One is in remembrance of Derrick and the other is in honor of Otero.
Otero had no idea his name would be included. It’s the first time the county has placed a DUI sign in honor of someone who is alive, said Jan Schemenauer, the county’s DUI victim panel coordinator.
She’s worked there for 15 years, and spent seven as a volunteer before that. She understands what it is like to lose someone dear in a drunken driving crash. She was 23 when her husband of five months was killed. Today, she is six months from retirement.
For years she’s been coordinating with Otero and Guzman to place the sign. She attended the ceremony Friday.
“This young man has worked tirelessly basically from the time he was able to get his voice back,” she said of Otero.
She turned to face him.
“You know how I feel about you, but your courage is remarkable,” she told him with emotion in her voice. “You have made such a difference.”