On every anniversary of the crash, Brandon Prudhomme visits two cemeteries in St. John the Baptist Parish, finding solace in the company of his fallen crew.
He opens a beer, toasts his five friends and confronts a crushing wave of survivor's guilt. Everyone else aboard the 20-foot runabout died that day 10 years ago on the Blind River, west of Lake Maurepas — a grisly boating collision that rocked the River Parishes and left Prudhomme in a coma for weeks.
Prudhomme has defied the odds, relearning to walk and talk and enduring years of therapy and medical appointments. He has regained the ability to hold a fork and to send text messages, despite devastating head injuries.
Memory returns in bits and pieces, but his life before Aug. 9, 2008, seems like a distant dream. "When people tell me stories," Prudhomme said, "I'll get a good feeling in my body and my heart that it's true, and I'll talk to more people about it and they'll tell me that it is true."
He has no recollection of the crash — or how he survived it — and yet it remains seared into his consciousness, like a frequency he constantly detects.
"I'll get a smell of their cologne and can sense them with me," Prudhomme said of the victims. "I'm always keeping an eye open for them everywhere I go. I tell myself that maybe, some day, they're going to pop up."
This void is felt around the region, where towns are small, clans are tight and the crash is often spoken of like a hurricane, given the breadth and notoriety of its impact. Closure remains elusive for Prudhomme and the families of the victims, some of whom said they had been robbed of justice in a criminal proceeding that drew almost no media attention at the time.
The community's grief was well known a decade ago, as loved ones and neighbors, former teachers and coaches filed into funerals and commemorated the five young men at memorial services.
But newly released state records reveal an aftermath that has not previously been reported, including doubts investigators harbored over who was driving the 30-foot cabin cruiser that collided with the youths' runabout near Alligator Bayou. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries determined both boats had been operated in a "negligent and reckless manner," and that the drivers of both vessels "bear responsibility in this incident."
The crash also raised questions about boating safety — and the lack of speed limits — in a culture that frequently combines water recreation with liberal alcohol consumption. The disaster resonated across south Louisiana and is still frequently discussed among local deputies when they patrol the waterways, St. John Sheriff Mike Tregre said.
"For so many people, they had been to that same waterway and done those same activities as a youth or in adulthood," said Buddy Boe, a former St. John councilman who now serves as executive director of the River Parishes Tourist Commission. "In that moment for the community, it could have been any of us. But it was young people who hadn't really had a chance to live a full life."
A grisly crash
Stanley Borne Sr. doesn't call it a premonition, but looking back, he says that Saturday seemed like a "special day." That morning, he cooked eggs and grits for his only son and namesake at their Reserve home.
Stanley Borne Jr. had plans to take a boat up the Blind River that afternoon with a group of his closest friends. "A bunch of us are getting together," he told his father.
The first knock at the door came several hours later, when a relative informed the elder Borne his son was missing. The boys had not returned to the Ruddock boat launch, setting off a frenzied search by loved ones.
Borne Sr. was in disbelief and began telephoning coroner's offices in the area. "How can you tell me that?" he told a deputy who came by his home later that night.
Wildlife & Fisheries received the call about 5:10 p.m. A red-and-white fiberglass Bayliner with six young men aboard had collided with a larger cabin cruiser that also was carrying six people.
The cabin cruiser had been traveling more than 70 mph approaching a bend, slowing to 62 mph before striking the smaller runabout, state investigators determined. The smaller boat was estimated to be traveling about 40 mph and had been left of the center of the waterway as it approached the same turn.
There are no specific speed limits on the water, said Adam Einck, a Wildlife & Fisheries spokesman, but Louisiana boaters are required to follow the so-called Rules of the Road for Vessels. Those rules say that approaching or passing each other "shall be operated in such manner and at such a rate of speed as will not create a hazardous wash or wake."
In the Blind River crash, the drivers of both boats attempted last-second maneuvers that essentially mirrored each other, witnesses said, turning first toward the center of the river and then toward the bank. The larger boat "continued over" the smaller vessel before running aground and striking several trees, according to the Wildlife & Fisheries report.
Both boats were severely damaged, and the runabout eventually sank after being towed to a nearby dock.
Killed or mortally wounded in the crash were Borne, 22, of Reserve; Ken Horzelski, 22, Joshua McNulty, 20, Patrick McTopy Jr., 23, all of LaPlace; and Chance Millet, 25, of Lutcher.
The first responders were other boaters, who began rescue attempts and loaded the young men onto a party barge that delivered them to a medical staging area. Two of the victims were pronounced dead at the scene, while three others, including Prudhomme, were taken to area hospitals. Authorities would not find Borne's body until two days later, about half a mile downstream from the crash site.
The six occupants of the cabin cruiser were transported by another boat to a nearby camp, where they were interviewed by state agents. Three of them were treated for minor injuries at a hospital in Gonzales.
'He killed those kids'
Investigators identified alcohol use aboard the runabout and the speed of the larger vessel as "major factors" in the crash. Several empty beer cans were found aboard both boats.
The driver of the smaller boat, Horzelski, had a blood alcohol content of .172 and would have faced criminal charges had he survived, according to the investigative report.
The authorities identified the driver of the larger boat as William T. Bowles, who was given a Breathalyzer test at the French Settlement town hall. The test, administered more than three hours after the crash, showed a blood alcohol content of .000.
But state investigators received a tip from a "confidential informant" that suggested Bowles had not been the driver. The tipster recounted a "reportedly distraught conversation" in which another man aboard Bowles' boat, Tommy Hamilton, said he "killed those kids," according to the Wildlife & Fisheries report.
Agents wrote that Hamilton had provided a "very vague account of the accident" on the day of the crash. Another passenger on the boat, in a written statement to authorities, listed Hamilton as the operator of the vessel but later scratched through the name and wrote Bowles, the report says. The inconsistencies prompted investigators to obtain a search warrant for Hamilton's medical records, the report says, which provided "no new additional information."
Hamilton was interviewed again some six weeks after the crash and volunteered to take a polygraph or voice stress test "to prove to investigators that he was not operating the vessel."
Louisiana State Police determined that both Hamilton and Bowles had been "truthful" in their polygraphs about Bowles having been the driver.
Ascension Parish prosecutors presented the case to a grand jury in January 2009. The panel considered negligent homicide charges against Bowles but returned a "no true bill," declining to indict him on those counts.
Bowles ultimately was charged with one misdemeanor count of reckless operation of a watercraft. But his defense attorneys argued that prosecutors could not show any intent or criminal negligence on Bowles' part, persuading a judge to quash the charge before the case went to trial.
Bowles and his attorneys did not return calls seeking comment last week. Hamilton also did not return a call seeking comment.
'Hole you can't fill'
Prudhomme, the lone survivor, said "there's not a second of the day" that the crash does not cross his mind. Sometimes he'll stare at photographs of his friends.
"I feel so bad that I'm the one who had to live," he said. "I'm grateful for living because of my son, but sometimes I feel like everybody is pointing at me."
Like Prudhomme, several of the victims' family members said they often feel like the young men are watching over them.
"I feel him with us all the time," McNulty's mother, Pam, said of her son.
Josh McNulty had a clear cross tattoo on his wrist; his mother and sisters got matching ones after the crash. A few years ago, on McNulty's birthday, an image of the same type of cross appeared on a wall in one of his sister's rooms, his mother said.
"This cross was not there before," Pam McNulty said. "I know it was Josh letting us know he's here with us."
The elder Borne has had similar experiences, and he still dreams about his son playing baseball. He said that his pain has been compounded by the fact that his son was his only child and best friend.
"Most of the time, when you hear a noise in the house you think he's still upstairs," Borne said. "Or a noise late at night and you think maybe he's coming in."
One of Horzelski's brothers, Jason, said that holidays are often the hardest. He often wonders what his brother would be doing with his life today. "Would he have gotten fat and ugly like me?" Jason Horzelski joked.
"We rode it out," he said of the past decade. "But there will always be that hole you can't fill."