Ceremony pays tribute to DWI crash victims

By DeeAnna Haney | Dec 23, 2013
Waynesville Police Officer Tim O'Niel lights a candle with Debbie Pruett, whose sister died after complications related to a crash.

Just two weeks before Christmas in 2011, Randall Garrett received the phone call that every parent prays they never hear. His 23-year-old daughter Stacey, had been severely injured in a violent crash.

Stacey was driving on Leicester Highway early the morning of Dec. 14 when 36-year-old Karen Wheeler drifted over the center lane, striking her vehicle.

"She was just driving to work not even thinking about what was going to happen," her father said.

The doctors braced her parents for the worst — they weren't sure she would even survive. After eight surgeries and four months spent in the hospital, Stacey was alive, but the brain damage changed her forever.

"To watch your daughter suffer for something she had no control over is just gut wrenching," Garrett said.

Stacey's father was the keynote speaker at An Evening of Remembrance last Friday. The event is held each year to honor the memory of those killed by drunk drivers across the state. But rather than dwelling on pain and loss, the vigil is more of a celebration of life, a gathering of support and a rally for officers to remind those families of their determination to end drunk driving.

Though not the same little girl he watched grow up, Garrett said he's blessed to still have Stacey in his life. Stacey smiled the entire time as her family lit a candle in her honor.

"Stacey is here tonight because she is a miracle," he said.

The event, held in the Ferguson Building at AB-Tech, was somber but full of hope that next year will mean even fewer drunk driving fatalities as a result of stepped up patrol and awareness efforts.

Buncombe County law enforcement agencies made more than 4,000 driving while impaired arrests and responded to 18 fatal vehicle collisions in 2013, said Asheville Police Chief William Andersen. Across the state, the numbers were startling with 26,437 driving while impaired arrests, said Cpt. Kenneth Kubas with the NC State Highway Patrol.

"Regardless of law enforcement efforts, the problem still exists," he said. "We have to continue to strictly enforce DWI laws.

Though any death related to driving while impaired is too many, Don Nail, director of the NC Governor's Highway Safety Program, said the statistics show how far the awareness has come.

"If you look back to 1982 and the attention that's been placed on drunk driving, you can really see the progress that's been made across the U.S. and NC and a lot of that goes back to MADD," he said.

There were 827 alcohol related fatalities in the state in 1982 compared to the 291 that have occurred so far this year, he said.

Ellen Pitt, director for MADD in western North Carolina, routinely follows drunk and drugged driving cases as they go through the court system. In the process, she gets to know all of the victim families intimately.

"The result is that someone else's decision to drink and drive for their own pleasure turns out to be greater than someone else's life," she said.

As another way to combat drunk and drugged driving, the NC Governor's highway Safety Program has also implemented a statewide task force. At the vigil, Nail announced two western North Carolina leaders who will play a key role on the task force.

Waynesville Police Chief Bill Hollingsed and District Attorney Greg Newman were recently appointed to the task force to represent the western part of the state.

During his career in law enforcement, Hollingsed said the worst part of the job is telling families that a loved one has died as a result of drunk driving.

"I've got vivid memories of having to make notifications to these families," he said.

But being a part of the task force will give him an opportunity to make more of an impact.

"We will think of you every time we meet," said Hollingsed to the room full of victims.

Debbie Pruett lit a candle for her sister, Angela Woody, who died this year after months of hospital stays and longstanding complications after a drunk driver crashed into her car last year. The single mother left behind her 13-year-old son.

Other families lit candles in memory of their loved ones who weren't lucky enough to survive such a wreck such as Rebecca Justice, mother of Joshua Trantham, a Pisgah High School teen who was killed by a drunk driver in Canton in 2004.

Another was for Michael and Frieda Morris who were seriously injured in a car crash in Maggie Valley. The driver was drunk and Michael's mother, Elease Mungo, was killed in the crash.

Naschia Lambert lit a candle to remind them of the wreck that seriously injured her and her brother in December 2012. The driver in that wreck faces charges of aggravated serious injury.

In the end, everyone at the vigil from Pitt to all the law enforcement officers promised continued vigilance in the fight against drunk and drug impaired driving.

"Together we are a force to be reckoned with," Pitt said.