Brian Mathews called his mother from the plane Thanksgiving morning, gleefully reporting that Southwest Airlines had let him board first in San Diego and thanked the uniformed Marine over the intercom for his service.
It was another small bit of good fortune for the 21-year-old corporal, who was on his way to his Columbia home for Thanksgiving. He had finished eight months of duty in Iraq last year and was looking forward to leaving the military in June.
On Thanksgiving night, he had a second date with a woman he had been text-messaging from his post at Camp Pendleton, Calif. After a traditional dinner at his parents' house, he was picked up shortly after 10 p.m. by Jennifer Bower, 24.
Ten minutes later, a Nissan Sentra driven by a 25-year-old Laurel man with a blood alcohol level that police say was four times the legal limit slammed into Ms. Bower's stopped Toyota Corolla at a red light on Route 175 at Route 108.
Corporal Mathews, a 2003 Howard High School graduate, and Ms. Bower, who lived in Montgomery County, died at Maryland Shock Trauma Center.
"He felt on top of his world," his mother, Trudy Mathews, said, adding that her son had bought new outfits for the weekend. "He was real happy. Very, very happy. He was going to see his friends, and he had another friend's 21st birthday party on Friday."
A spokesman for Howard County police said Eduardo Raul Morales-Soriano, who was not injured, had been charged with two counts of manslaughter while intoxicated and two counts of homicide by motor vehicle. He was being held yesterday at the Howard County Detention Center in lieu of $830,000 bail.
A Breathalyzer recorded the man's blood alcohol level at 0.32 percent, Acting Police Chief William J. McMahon told members of the Howard County Council yesterday. The legal limit is 0.08 percent.
Corporal Mathews and Ms. Bower were to be in a wedding together in June and had been set up by the bride and groom. They had gone on their first date in May and had been corresponding.
Her father declined to comment for this article.
Corporal Mathews' great-grandfather died on a British submarine in World War I, his mother said. One grandfather lost his leg in World War II and the other, a Navy pilot, was killed in a crash at sea in 1958.
Trudy Mathews said her son's three-day trip home was to be a rare moment of peace for her.
The accident "came at a time when I was the least worried," she said. "We all felt that he was out of the woods. He had survived Iraq. He was getting out in June. It's unbelievable how a second can change your life. It's a lesson not to take anything for granted."
She tried to discourage Brian, her younger son, from serving in the military. But by age 3, he wanted nothing other than to play GI Joe and emulate his older brother and father.
His brother, Kyle Mathews, 36, was a Navy pilot and now flies for the Naval Reserve. His father, Bill Mathews, was a Marine in Vietnam and is a retired Navy captain. His older sister, Heather Hoppe, is a Naval Criminal Intelligence Service investigator.
Childhood friends Melissa Javier and Kelly Rivers said Corporal Mathews, their best friend, would dress up in fatigues or as a Secret Service agent every year for Halloween and when they were just playing in the snow.
He enlisted in the Marines on his 17th birthday, the earliest that he could, said his sister-in-law, Staci Mathews.
"He would make us watch Alien, Terminator and Rambo," said Ms. Rivers, 21, a student at the University of Maryland. "When we were playing in the snow, he'd disappear for a couple of hours and then ambush us in full camouflage with snowballs."
Corporal Mathews was so set on the Marines, fellow Howard High graduate Jenna May said, that he refused to join Army ROTC.
"He felt Army ROTC didn't live up to his standards, and I can say that because I was in ROTC at Howard," said Ms. May, who lives in Ormond Beach, Fla. "It all is just so shocking because he ... lived through a war under a constant threat of danger, just to come back and die in an accident. In what world does that make sense, when you face more danger coming back to your own country than a half-world away?"
When Trudy Mathews arrived at Shock Trauma, her son was unconscious and on life support. Doctors pronounced him dead Friday morning after an MRI showed no blood flowing to the brain, his sister-in-law said.
Trudy Mathews said she was most proud of the legacy her son has left someone else. She remembers taking her son to renew his driver's license last year and asking him about his decision to become an organ donor.
"I asked him if he really wanted to do that, and he said, 'Sure, why wouldn't I? I don't need them, and it could save people.' That's exactly what has happened. His heart was matched right there at the hospital. And it's a good heart, a very good heart."
A viewing for Corporal Mathews will be held from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. tomorrow at Wilde Lake Interfaith Center in Columbia. A service will follow. He will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
firstname.lastname@example.orgSun reporter Larry Carson contributed to this article.