On the morning of Feb. 11, 2004, Greg Elmore, a senior master sergeant in the Air Force, walked toward the gates of the Baghdad Recruiting Station where he and other airmen were working feverishly to build a new Iraqi army.

Hundreds of Iraqis waited outside the gates to enlist when a white Oldsmobile sedan packed with 500 pounds of explosives drove toward them. Greg was about 30 yards away when the car exploded.

In a blink, he saw a flash of light, felt his body cartwheel through the air, heard his eardrums rupture from the roar and make everything sound as if he were under water. Shrapnel sliced into his ribs, shoulder and eyebrow. Then everything turned to smoke and screams and blood and Marines and Army soldiers rushing to secure the area. He staggered toward the body of a young man, one of 47 Iraqis who died.

That was somebody's son, maybe somebody's husband, he thought, tears falling now, as his mind moved home to his two boys, Taylor and Brian, how he loved nothing more than hearing them call him "dad," and how his wonderful wife, Belinda, a teacher, nearly became a widow that morning.

Greg knew the blast would make headlines back home and called his family as soon as he could. It was about midnight in Texas when he heard his wife's voice crackle over the line with a slight delay because of the distance. He down-played what happened. Everything is OK, he told her.

Belinda didn't buy it, and neither did his eldest son, Brian. Dad, he said, you need to come home right now. Then, Taylor got on the line.

Taylor was 13 months younger than Brian, but seemed mature beyond his years.

"Definitely an old soul," his mother recalled. "In third grade he would write songs about the hurts in the world and how we could fix them." On Mother's Day, he sang "I Could Only Imagine," her favorite song, and sometimes made up his own songs about the poor and Jesus. Taylor was the peacemaker in the family, she said. "The only time he would get upset was when there was turmoil in the family." There wasn't much of that, though. He and his older brother were best friends, a relationship that cemented as the family moved from base to base. Taylor considered his dad a hero, sometimes sounding like a military recruiter when bragging that his father could do anything once he set his mind to it.

"Well, be safe Dad," Taylor, 10 years old then, told him a world away. "I know you'll be fine. Nobody can get the best of you!"

Keeping the family together

"Everything will be all right." That was Taylor's mantra and the glue that kept the Elmores together during the moves and Greg's deployments. Greg grew up in the South Carolina Sandhills and at one point was lucky enough to be stationed at Shaw Air Force Base, close to his cousins, aunts and uncles in Florence.

When Greg was reassigned to Dover, Del., Taylor was the family cheerleader. "Everything will be OK. Hey, it's going to be fun!" When Greg was ordered to a base in Texas, Belinda and Brian weren't thrilled. "It's going to be good," Taylor told them. And he was right; they enjoyed their time in Texas. "He saw the possibilities, the good things," Greg said.

Three days after the blast, Greg went back to work - he and the other members of the recruiting team didn't want the insurgents to think they had won. But he was shaken nonetheless. Before the blast, he had been in a convoy that was hit by a roadside bomb.

He and other members of the recruiting team were easy targets. They often worked in pairs outside the heavily fortified Green Zone, just as the war in Iraq had begun to spiral into its bloodiest phase. "That's when the beheadings were going on and it was pretty frightening to think that one of the Iraqis might sell us off and we would end up in the next video." For the first time in his military career, he wasn't sure he would ever see his family again.

But Taylor was right; Greg made it back to Texas alive, along with his Purple Heart, shrapnel scars and emotions of what happened stuffed inside a box that he planned to keep shut as tightly as he could. "It was time for a new chapter," he recalled.

Sometimes that lid popped open, though. He returned to Texas with a shorter fuse. He was a little skittish. During a run, a gun used to scare birds at the airbase fired, and he dove into a ditch to take cover. "Greg was different when he came home," Belinda said. "I would talk with Taylor about it, and he would say, 'We have to be there for him, mom, everything will be OK.' "

Greg retired from the Air Force in 2005 and took a job with Kraft Foods near Allentown, Pa., proud of his 20 years of military service and even more pleased that he could spend more time watching his sons grow up.

Taylor was the one who wanted to move back home, back to Florence. Taylor thought the kids were friendlier in Florence, and besides, didn't it make more sense to live close to your cousins, aunts and uncles, your family?

"He was so close to his family, yet he wanted to see the world. That was Taylor," Greg said. Taylor was right, everyone decided, and they moved back to South Carolina.

Greg took a job with QVC, which runs a giant distribution center in Florence. Belinda soon found a teaching job, and Brian and Taylor enrolled at West Florence High School. "Everything was going so well," Belinda said.

At West Florence High, Taylor was an honor-roll student. Perhaps because he had moved so much as a child, he mixed easily with his peers, no matter what clique. Taylor had straight brown hair, thick eyebrows and an easy smile. He was a tad awkward as he grew into his six-foot frame but still enjoyed being on sports teams. He signed up for track and cross country, following in the footsteps of his older brother. After school, he worked at Chic-fil-A to save money and then at a law firm as a runner. He made enough money to pay for his prom tickets and tuxedo and other expenses. Sometimes Greg and Belinda felt a little guilty when he turned down their requests to pay for these things. Then again, you want to teach your children to be self-sufficient, right?

Taylor had mapped out a long road for himself, taking him first to the College of Charleston, then the University of South Carolina's International School of Business. After school, he would start a new business of his own.

"When the Somali pirates began taking over the ships, he talked about setting up a business to protect the ships. We kind of laughed it off," Greg said, "but I think he was serious."

'I love you dad'

Last summer, Taylor asked if he could take a friend to the College of Charleston on a Saturday and look around. Belinda said they should use her year-old Chrysler Sebring for the drive. Taylor was 17 but had proved to be a conscientious and safe driver. They left the morning of Aug. 1. Belinda called him an hour or so later. "Mom, I have to get off the phone. I don't want to be in an accident."

In the passenger seat was Hali Roberson, a girl he had become fast friends with in recent months. With them was a scrap of paper with the title, "Our Awesome List," a roster of things they wanted to do in the next year:

That Saturday, Greg was running in a local 5-K race. When Greg did a race, he and his son usually chatted over the results. Greg phoned Taylor and told him his time. They talked for a few seconds about the race when Taylor cut in. "Dad, I can't talk. I gotta drive."

"I said, 'I love you Taylor,' and Taylor said, 'I love you, dad,' " Greg recalled. "He always said 'I love you, dad,' not just 'I love you.' Then we hung up."

Belinda knew in her gut that something was wrong when Taylor didn't call by 11 a.m. By then, Taylor and Hali should have been walking the streets of downtown Charleston. She dialed his number but it went straight to voice mail. She called the highway department to find out if troopers had heard about any wrecks. The dispatchers said they didn't have any information. Belinda was looking out the window when the coroner drove up.

No one's sure what happened. On Interstate 26, a few miles from the Ridgeville exit, Taylor's car veered off the road and went head-on into a pine tree in the median. Taylor died instantly. The weather was clear that morning. Taylor and Hali were wearing their seat belts, and investigators would determine later that Taylor wasn't on his cell phone. Hali was seriously injured in the crash but would recover.

In some ways, it was an odd place for a crash. That stretch of I-26 is a straight, tree-lined shot through swamps, pine forests and farms, a welcome break from the suburban and industrial clutter south of Summerville. Yet, it is the deadliest part of I-26 in South Carolina. It has a fatality rate three to four times higher than other stretches.

As with Taylor's death, many fatal crashes involved roll-overs and collisions with trees. Unlike many other stretches of I-26, this "death zone" near Ridgeville has no cable barriers to keep motorists from hitting the trees or going into the steep ditches that line many parts of the highway. Greg figures his son took his eye off the road for whatever reason, veered left onto the grass and had no time to recover. "Everyone makes mistakes, but it's a high price to pay." It's a price Taylor's friends and family are still paying.

Cross on the highway

When Taylor died, Brian felt as if he'd lost a limb but somehow found the strength during Taylor's funeral to say what everyone was thinking, "It's so hard to say goodbye to someone who you never thought would leave you."

Belinda felt as if half her life had been taken away. "We were working for a house full of grandchildren. Now we go minute by minute." Her father made a knee-high wooden cross, and she and Greg drove to mile marker 183 and erected it next to the pine tree Taylor hit. Belinda planted flowers and placed a small ceramic figurine at its base.

"You never really notice those crosses until it happens to you," she said. Then you see them everywhere, and every one of them reminds you of what you lost.

For Greg, Taylor's death opened the box of emotions he had been holding shut since that terrible morning in Iraq. He began to wonder why he survived that blast.

"I had burnt skin on me from the people who were killed, their blood covered my uniform. A lot of people never experience that, and I always thought it would be the worst thing that would happen in my life," he said. "But after Taylor died, everything came back. I still think, 'Why was I dealt such a crappy hand to see what I saw and then lose my son, who was such a good kid?' I have to admit that, even though we're believers, it's shaken my faith."

Then came the feelings of guilt and self-doubt: If Greg had known how dangerous that stretch of I-26 was, he wouldn't have let him go that day. Why did he live to see his son die? Sometimes he took himself to task: Why should he feel so sorry for himself? He had 17 years with a wonderful child. Not everyone has that blessing.

About a month after the wreck, Greg felt a pull to see where his son died. "I'm not sure why. I just had to go."

As he neared Ridgeville, he noticed how the pavement drops abruptly onto the shoulder, how if you run off the pavement, it pulls the car hard, and if you start losing control, you have no margin of error; in a blink, you're rolling over down an embankment or heading for a big tree in the median.

Near mile marker 183, he stopped the car, walked to the pine tree that Taylor hit and thought how close to the road it was, how big the tree was, how it had a big gash but hadn't budged. Bits of broken glass and car parts from the crash were strewn along the grass. For some reason, he turned around and spotted Taylor's cell phone 15 feet away in a bed of pine straw. One day your family is perfect, he thought, the next it's in pieces.

Reach Tony Bartelme at tbartelme@postandcourier.com or 937-5554.