DWI victims remembered at vigil
With drunk driving as one of the leading causes of death in the nation, even those in Haywood County aren't immune to the tragic outcomes of drinking and driving.
Law enforcement from every agency in the county filled rows and rows alongside the families of those who have died in DWI-related accidents Friday at MADD's Evening of Remembrance.
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.
The most recent statistics from 2010 reveal there were 388 alcohol impaired driving fatalities in the state, 53 of which were underage. There were also 50,907 driving while impaired arrests that year.
Although that number has decreased since the previous year, the impact of driving while impaired continues to affect families everywhere, even in Haywood County.
Andrew Woody, 12, and his family lit a candle in honor of his mother, Angela Woody, who was severely injured when a drunk driver struck her car in July.
He was in the car with her at the time and was left unconcious when 27-year-old Jessica Simonds collided head-on with their car on Old Balsam Road.
Angela Woody was rushed to Mission Hospital with a fracture in her left hip, fractured femur and a deep laceration in her left leg, injuries that have left her unsure of whether she will ever walk again.
Waynesville Police Officer Heath Plemmons arrested Simonds after she failed a series of field sobriety tests and blew a .09 during a breathalyzer following the crash.
Simonds was sentenced to up to 44 months in jail for the crime and has another DWI charge pending in Buncombe County Court.
But the injuries, physically and mentally, on the family have endured. Woody, who was forced to lie in bed for five months after the accident, remains in a rehabilitation facility.
She is now learning to stand again for very short periods at a time, her 12-year-old son, Andrew said.
Although he had reservations about attending the MADD ceremony, he said he's glad he did.
"It helped to have the support of the officers and know they're doing their job," he said. "Drunk driving changed people's lives and it's not worth it."
Angela Woody's sister, Debbie Pruett, who has been looking after her nephew, said despite at least a million dollars in medical bills piling up and not knowing whether she will ever walk, her sister remains in good spirits.
But the life changing event has made her realize there needs to be change in the judicial system.
"The laws aren't strict enough on repeat offenders," she said.
District Attorney for the 30th Judicial District Mike Bonfoey said he believes a heightened awareness camapaign about the dangers of drunk driving has contributed to the decrease of fatalities.
"My feeling is that people are more aware of the dangers of drinking and driving and more people make plans to have a designated driver more now than in the past," he said.
But having seen such accidents first hand, he said plenty of people continue the selfish act of getting behind the wheel while drunk.
"The damages, costs and loss can't be measured in dollars. Yes, dollars can measure property damage and medical bills and legal expenses, but no amount can measure the loss of a loved one," Bonfoey said.
Ellen Pitt, MADD representative in Western North Carolina, rarely misses a license checkpoint. She also serves as a court monitor, observing drunk driving cases and supporting victims through the sometimes confusing legal system.
She praised the county's law enforcement and prosecutors for their endless mission to pull over drunk drivers and see to it they are convicted of their crimes.
"There is nothing they won’t do to prevent what has happened to some of you," she said to the families of the victims.
For Rebecca Justice, whose son Joshua Trantham was hit and killed by a drunk driver on Highway 110 in Canton in 2004, the yearly event has helped with the healing process.
"Sometimes it seems like it was just yesterday that he was killed, but this is something I can to do to honor my son and keep his memory alive," she said.
More than anything the event was about reminding people of the police presence in our county and that drunk driving will not be tolerated.
"It's significant for the families that are here tonight. That's what tonight is all about - letting them know that we're behind them," said Maggie Valley Police Chief Scott Sutton.
Following the event, officers rallied for a DWI checkpoint near the Sunoco gas station in Maggie Valley, where there have been several fatalities.