The tears come less often now, and nightmares no longer haunt the children's sleep.
But for the families of three people killed in a highway pileup in Bowie nearly a year ago, the grief has not gone away, only changed. It is now a dull but constant ache, felt on quiet evenings that pass without a mother's phone call, and at youth soccer games where the only cheers are those of other children's parents.
Christina Tran, a 13-year-old with serious eyes, lost both parents in the crash. She has had to take on adult responsibilities, filling out soccer-league paperwork for her two younger siblings and nudging them to do their homework and keep their clothes neat.
She says she misses her father most when she is striding down the soccer field, a place quieter without Toi Tran on the sidelines shouting in his instantly recognizable Vietnamese accent, "Go get it, Christina!"
"I guess back then I didn't appreciate it, but now I do," says Christina. "Just him being there, giving me support that I don't really have now."
Sarah McLean, 30, whose mother was the crash's third victim, said that only in the past couple of months has she summoned the strength to look at pictures of her mother without crying. Ann W. Williams, 54, had been a "hip grandma" to McLean's two young children, taking them to the circus or sprawling out on the floor to play.
"I would like to say I'm not still angry about it, but I am," McLean says of the accident. "It was just such a waste."
Williams' fiance, Paul D. Boran, a 60-year-old engineer who, like Williams, had been married once before, has been in therapy since the accident, still in pain from seeing a second chance at love snatched away. "Our plans," he said, "were just to live our lives together."
The crash that killed Ann Williams of Alexandria, Va., and Toi and Xuan Tran of Arnold, took place last Sept. 11, as if that day needed any more sad stories. At 10 a.m., a Bekins moving van blew a left front tire on eastbound U.S. 50 and bowled across the median, striking the Trans' vehicle head-on and then overturning onto Williams' car.
A State Police investigation found that the tire had been worn down from under-inflation into an "unstable condition" that caused the blowout. Investigators said that the driver's failure to properly inspect his vehicle before the trip was a factor in the crash.
The state's attorney in Prince George's County declined to prosecute the driver, Alexander H. Hilton, 51, of Fredericksburg, Va.
Assistant State's Attorney Michael R. Pearson, who reviewed the case, said last week that even if Hilton had failed to fully inspect his truck, it would not have met the test of "gross negligence" required under Maryland law to bring charges of vehicular manslaughter.
Federal truck-safety rules require truck drivers to submit to drug and alcohol tests after fatal crashes, even if there are no signs of intoxication. Hilton supplied a urine sample to nurses at Prince George's Hospital Center. But after a test raised questions about whether the urine was his, Hilton refused the hospital's "persistent requests" for additional tests and was "very uncooperative," according to police reports.
The U.S. Department of Transportation punishes truckers who refuse additional alcohol tests. But DOT officials said last week that they were never made aware of Hilton's refusals.
Reached by phone Thursday, Hilton would not answer questions. "At this time, I have no response," he said, then added: "I still have a hard time dealing with myself."
His employer at the time, Bekins A-1 Movers Inc. of Woodbridge, Va., referred all questions to its lawyer, Thomas V. McCarron of Baltimore, who did not return phone calls.
For the families, time has helped heal, but not completely. The grim visits to the police barracks to sign papers and collect belongings are behind them. Closets have been cleared out, clothes donated to charity. Sympathy cards have been sealed away in boxes.
But the accident continues to echo across the lives of those left behind.
Looking for a better life
Toi and Xuan Tran had fled Communist Vietnam in the 1970s for a better life.
They ran a popular Annapolis restaurant, Saigon Palace, that was frequented by actor Harrison Ford while he was in town filming a movie. They made enough money to buy a modest home and send their children to private schools.
Christina, the ace student, was born first. Then came Crystal, the shy one, and Christopher, the rambunctious, outgoing one.
Toi and Xuan were strict parents. They double-checked their children's homework and vetted their friends, welcoming only those who were similarly studious and polite. Even at age 7, Christopher was known to rush to open a door for a woman.
Toi Tran had been a semi-professional soccer player in Vietnam, and he wanted his daughters to shine in the Washington Area Girls Soccer League. He critiqued their kicks and speed. The girls were soon filling their shelves with trophies.