For Lisa and David, July 2, 2005, began as a perfect wedding day. More than 200 close friends and relatives gathered on the beach. Lisa's fondest memory of the day was of her nieces, 5-year-old Grace and 7-year-old Katie, dressed like princesses, throwing rocks into the Long Island Sound. Katie was also Lisa's goddaughter. "Being her godmother and her being my flower girl, it just was so special to Katie," Lisa says.
After a day full of celebration, Lisa's parents, Christopher and Denise, along with her sister, Jennifer, Jennifer's husband, Neil, and their daughters, Grace and Katie, all headed home in a limousine. "I remember looking in on the limo and seeing Kate and waving goodbye and she waved goodbye and never thought that, that was going to be that type of moment where you're seeing people for the last time," says David, the groom. "It's, I guess, a moment I see every day."
On the ride home, the limo was struck head-on by a drunk driver. Police reports indicate the driver, 24-year-old Martin Heidgen, had at least 14 drinks, and his blood alcohol level was more than three times the legal limit. Police say he was driving 70 miles an hour down the wrong side of a major highway for at least two miles before he crashed into the limousine.
Next to arrive was Lt. Michael Tangney, the bride's uncle, who had attended the wedding just hours before. "I was walking to the rear of the limousine when a gentleman was coming away from it and he said, 'Don't go back there. It's bad,'" Lt. Tangney says. "I opened the rear door to the limousine and realized it was my family."
Lt. Tangney's brother—Jennifer's father, Chris—was laying on the floor, his legs wrapped around the service bar, broken in numerous places. The rest of the family was piled on top of each other. Jennifer's mother, Denise, was severely injured, as was Jennifer's husband, Neil, who tried to crawl out of the limo to get help despite his broken back. Five-year-old Grace was also trapped inside the wreckage. Jennifer, whose foot was injured, managed to climb out and was searching for Katie, who had been lying on the side seat before the crash. "We couldn't find Kate," Lt. Tangney says. Then, Jennifer made a devastating discovery—Katie had been decapitated by her seatbelt.
"Then all of a sudden Mrs. Flynn came out of the car with her child's head in her hand," says Michael Lerardi, one of the 70 paramedics and police officers who were called to the scene. "I got numb. I thought I was going to collapse. All she was holding was this kid's head," says Officer Christopher Pandolfo. "I looked into the back of the limousine and I saw Katie's remains. She was wearing this dress and I just started shaking."
Jennifer walked to side of the road and sat for about an hour with her daughter's head on her lap as she watched her family being cut out of the limousine. Lt. Tangney had to tell his niece it was time to leave. "She very lucidly, very calmly said she wasn't going anywhere. She wasn't leaving Kate," he says. "I climbed into the ambulance and I told Jennifer that she'd have to come inside now because Grace needed her, and she said she's not going to let go of Kate. And I asked her if she would give her to me, and at that point she turned her over, kissed her goodbye, and handed her to me."
Now, Jennifer and Neil are sharing their story. "Because no one should live the life that I live. I felt a responsibility, an obligation, to come and to tell our story," Jennifer says. "I hope that by knowing the devastation that we lived through that night and still continue to live through, hopefully people are able to see and view the crime [of drunk driving] as it should be seen and viewed and that hopefully we'll save lives."
Jennifer says her back was to the windshield when the crash occurred. She was holding her daughter Grace and Katie was lying down on the side seat of the limo with her seat belt on. Jennifer says she felt a sense of calm at the scene, although others told her she had been screaming. "I wasn't worried for Kate because I do believe she's in heaven," she says. "At the time, I was more worried for us. I never, ever thought that Neil and I would be able to live without her."
As her family was extracted from the wreckage, Jennifer says she sat at the side of the road with Kate's severed head and watched the scene for an hour. "I didn't want to leave without the rest of my family," she says.
Neil, who had broken his back, tried to crawl out of the limo. "I heard my wife screaming, 'Katie's dead,' and I didn't want to accept it so I screamed back, 'No, she's just hurt real bad,'" he says. "I didn't know what Jen knew then."
Lisa says she feels guilt about everything. "We had it on the Fourth of July weekend. If you look at the statistics, that's DWI season," she says. "Would this have happened if it wasn't on such a big night? Maybe not. Those are the decisions that ultimately killed my family.
"How do we start a life when your start is death?" Lisa asks. "It's your wedding day, and now they don't have their child."
Neil says he wanted to die the night of the accident and he has often thought of suicide. "I'd take it now if I didn't have more children. Life's terrible. It's miserable. The good part's over. That was when we had all our kids," he says. "We were a family. Now we're stuck. We're just struggling through for the good of our three other children."
Every day is a struggle, Neil and Jennifer say. "Everything I see my children do, I think Kate should be doing. Everything I know they're going to do, I know Kate won't do," he says. "Every time you wake up, you say to yourself, 'This is terrible. I went another day without her,' you know? Or I have to face another day without her. And every night when I go to sleep, I made it through another day and I know it's not going to get any better as long as I'm awake."
The accident has changed their marriage, Jennifer says. "The old Jennifer, when Neil would come home from work, might ask, 'How was your day? What's going on?' And now I don't care. And you don't want to be that way," she says. "What follows what happened to us?"
As a respected police officer, Chris says he's seen drunk drivers and pulled them over, but he never thought drunk driving could affect his family. "It really never occurred to me that this could happen to me. I hate to be naive. I know it happens," he says. "But that night when we were driving home on the parkway, Denise and I were looking out the window and we saw the car coming at us."
Less than two years after Stanley's death, his first grandchild was born and named in his honor. "I put the picture of Dad with Stanley because I just wanted the first images that my son saw to be his grandfather," Keith says.
"It saddens me to think that my father won't experience having grandkids because I know that he was really looking forward to it," Nolan says. "But at the same time, I know what kind of father I want to be now."
Read Jennifer's full victim impact statement at www.nypost.com/seven/03012007/news/regionalnews/
Read Neil's full victim impact statement at www.nypost.com/seven/03012007/news/regionalnews/
Jennifer hopes the verdict will demonstrate that not all drunk driving charges can be treated the same. "The way the jury deliberated over it, I think for people, they don't want to think of drunk driving as murder," she says. "So I think that that's something that we hope, that you don't have to lump all drunk driving into one charge. There is the extraordinarily reckless drunk driving which happened to us."
Although Neil sought counseling after the crash, he says the absence of his daughter is something counseling can't address. "I'm here. This is what I have to deal with, and I will. But like I said, the good part's over," he says. "We had our plan. We decided we were going to have four kids and that was what we were going to do, you know, and we were set. We were fine. And like I said, that five-second smash defined my life."
Jennifer says she and Neil are active parents to their three other children. "We continue to do a ton with the children that live. Even more because of that ... but there is that feeling that when they do something, you do wish Kate was there to enjoy it as well," she says. "So we do try and we are there. But to see them do stuff ... you know, one is the artist. One is this. One is that. The personalities bounce off of each other. So to not have Kate's there, it always seems like ... she's missing. And it's hard, as much as you're doing it and you're there, it's palpable. It's hard not to feel it."
Before a driver with a prior DUI can start a car with this device, they must blow into a device that measures their blood alcohol level. If alcohol is detected, the car will not start.
Currently, only four states require this device for all first-time offenders—New Mexico, Arizona, Louisiana and Illinois. MADD says 4,000 lives would be saved every year if they were required in every state. To learn more about MADD's campaign to eliminate drunk driving, visit MADD.org.
What does Jennifer think of the idea? "I think that's great for the repeat offenders, but I think that for drunk driving to be curbed that it needs to hurt if you were to get caught drunk driving," she says. "So I think that for even the lesser or the first-time offender ... it should be the fine with the license, with the community service, with going to a class."
Ultimately, Jennifer believes people need to know that all actions have repercussions. "Actions have consequences and I think everyone needs to know that and recognize it, and it doesn't make us bad people for not wanting to live in a world of chaos," she says. "If you're going to commit the crime, you're going to get in trouble and it should be that way. We should all want that."
On December 23, 2004, Roz and her family—including her son, Smith, his wife, Julie, and their 4-year-old son, Jackson—were at a family Christmas party when Roz asked the kids if they wanted to go sing Christmas carols.
Roz drove Jackson and his two sisters to meet the other grandchildren—and then the unthinkable happened. As Roz backed up, Jackson darted behind her SUV and was hit. "When we drove up on the scene, I remember there being lights and I could hear Roz in the background crying and screaming," Julie says.
"Everyone was around Jackson, and my brother and I began giving him mouth-to-mouth. He was just still," Smith says. Jackson was rushed to a hospital, but it was too late. "We were in a room, and the doctor came and told us that he had passed," Smith says.
Since Jackson's death, Roz hasn't been able to forgive herself. "It would be [an accident] if it was somebody else. But I did it. It was me," she says. "It was me that did it. It was me that made a mistake."
Although she can't forgive herself, Roz says if someone else had made that terrible mistake, she could forgive them. "I would know that they loved the one that they hurt. I would know that, and I would feel the pain for them," she says. "But when you've done it, you've done it to your children, and you've taken a light, a life, because you made a mistake. That's more than I can forgive myself for."
Smith says he feels the same way. "I should have been the one who stepped up and had taken him over there," he says. "And [Roz], once again, gave of herself and said, 'I'll do it.' And it was not her job. It was out of her love this happened. And so it was our responsibility. It was on our watch that this happened. And she, through her giving, chose to say, 'I'll do it,' and gladly did it. And because of that, she has to carry this burden."
Both Smith and Julie say there has never been a moment when they blamed Roz for what happened, and Julie says they forgive her. "She showed us so much love and so much grace, had taken us in when we were struggling in the early part of our marriage," she says. "And I feel like she showed us how to forgive way before we even had to know that we had to give it back to her. She filled us up with what we had to give back to her, which was effortless. It was never even a decision."
Even though Jackson's parents don't blame her, Roz says she still has a difficult time forgiving herself. "'Forgive, forgive,'—you hear these words thrown around all the time," she says. "I also looked it up, and [the dictionary] says, 'to pardon.' If I forgave myself, I would be pardoning myself for not stopping that car for all these children running around."
Since the 1991 crash, Teresa has had three more children, but she still thinks about Katie, Jonathan and Jacob all the time. Like Julie and Smith, Teresa says her husband did not blame her for what happened. "I can remember finally having to say to him, 'It's all fine and good for you to say that, but I have to be able to feel it in my heart,'" she says.
While she tried to be happy, Teresa says she had to release some of her emotions in order to come to terms with what happened. "There were times that I would go be by myself, where no one could hear me, and I would scream and talk to my children and apologize to them and ask their forgiveness, and that helped so much to be able to get those feelings outside of me," she says.
Teresa has also learned an important lesson from her loss. "Part of why we're here in this life is to learn and grow, to have experiences, and some are very, very painful, but we all make mistakes," she says. "Part of what I came to realize was that it wasn't so much forgiving myself as it was accepting myself, accepting that I am human and that that is okay."
Roz continuing to punish herself does not honor Jackson or the rest of the family, she says, but remembering and grieving will. "What you did is you happened to be caught doing what we all do—being absorbed in the moment, stressed out about a situation," Dr. Robin says. "To forgive yourself would be to say that you did something wrong. What happened is your humanity, and how fragile each moment is and that we have almost no control. Can we learn something? Absolutely. Will you save lives because you're here today? Absolutely."
But in addition to reminding drivers to be careful around children, Dr. Robin says Roz can teach another lesson. "If you can begin to teach that you're not going to stay frozen in this self-punishment, that would be equally as great a gift even for your children to know that ... when life knocks you down, that you can somehow recover," Dr. Robin says. "That gift is the gift that we all need."
Smith says when he thinks of his son, he asks himself what Jackson would want for his family. "Would he want you to imprison yourself in this pain? Or would he say, 'Unlock the door. Let yourself out,?'" Smith says. "Who we were, those days are no more. But who we've become through the fire, through these ashes, is a stronger, closer people, who we are. And the joy and the love that we have will be again. And he would want that."
After talking with Oprah, Roz's family joined Senator Hillary Clinton on Capitol Hill to urge the passage of a bill requiring back-over detection systems in all new vehicles.
Learn more about the length of blind spots for popular car models, the best rear visibility devices and the safest power windows for your family at https://cu.convio.net/ConsumerReportsTesting.
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