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Driving home a message

Three speakers share pain that has been caused by drinking and driving.

By TERRI BRYCE REEVES
Published March 23, 2007


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photo
[Times photo: Terri Bryce Reeves]
At Tarpon Springs High School, three speakers share pain that has been caused by drinking and driving. Nikita Legon, 17, was one of many students who took the lesson hard: "Just seeing them talk up there and how much it hurt them, it really got to me."

TARPON SPRINGS - Melissa Athas remembered the last thing her brother ever said to her.

"Melissa!" he yelled. "I'll always be here for you." Then he laughed and walked out the door.

That was 10 months ago.

"Now, when I want to visit him, I have to go to his grave," she told hundreds of junior and senior high school students packed into Tarpon Springs High School's auditorium Thursday.

"I call his cell phone all the time," said Melissa, 18, a senior at the school. "It's the only way I can hear his voice."

* * *

Melissa's brother, Andrew Garcia, died at 21 after the driver he was riding with lost control of the car and slammed into a tree, authorities said.

The driver, Joseph Eagan of Palm Harbor, had a blood-alcohol level of 0.14 percent, according to the Florida Highway Patrol. Florida law presumes a driver to be impaired when his blood-alcohol level is 0.08 percent or higher. Eagan, 22, was charged with DUI manslaughter. He has pleaded not guilty.

Now, before spring break and prom season, Melissa is on a life-saving mission.

"I want to raise awareness about the dangers and consequences of drinking and driving," she said. "I don't want others to have to go through what we are going through."

With the help and support of a school resource officer, Pinellas County sheriff's Deputy Miguel Echevarria, as well as the community, she planned a two-day event at the school to drive home the message.

On Wednesday, the high school's football field became the setting for a simulated drunken driving accident complete with wrecked cars, drama students, a Bayflite helicopter and law enforcement, fire rescue and forensic personnel.

On Thursday, a "funeral" was held to remember drunken driving victims.

As the students filed into the auditorium, they laid carnations on the casket of a "victim." A mirror was strategically placed inside the casket so as the students peered inside, they would see their own reflections.

Grace Cleghorn, 17, jumped back.

"I thought it was someone in there," she said. "I thought it was real."

Larry Wonnacott, 18, laid a flower on the casket and said, "It's not going to be me."

They passed by framed pictures of Garcia in his baseball uniform and with his sister. There was also a collage portraying the life of Patrick Cooley, another Tarpon Springs grad, killed as a passenger in a drunken driving accident.

The service commenced with the Rev. Reid Isenhart, outreach pastor of Palm Harbor United Methodist Church.

The lives of the two young men were lost "because of the foolishness of decisions," he said. He led a prayer that those in the audience would make different choices.

He introduced a panel of three speakers, two of whom had lost loved ones and one who had taken a life.

"They've come to help save your life," Isenhart said.

* * *

Mike Cooley, general manager of Crown Honda in Pinellas Park, said both his son Patrick, who graduated from the school in 2002, and his own father were killed by drunken drivers. His father died when he was only 5.

"It's the fear of your death, your personal injury, or your going to prison that brings me here," he said.

Patrick, 23, was a certified personal trainer attending St. Petersburg College.

"He planned to get a business degree and open his own gym," Cooley said.

Then in January 2006, Pat was out with some friends. His ride home fell through. He found another ride with Richard Cadmus-Diaz, who was later found to have a blood alcohol level of .189 percent. That night Cadmus-Diaz plowed his car into the back of a stopped tow truck. Still recovering from serious injuries, he pleaded no contest to DUI-manslaughter and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. His driver's license was revoked permanently.

Cooley remembered how the police came to the door in the middle of the night and told him and his wife, Mary, that their son was killed.

"We cried," he said. "We were both so physically ill, our yellow Lab began throwing up just like us."

He said the pain is still very fresh.

"I don't think it will ever go away," he said.

* * *

John Templeton Jr. spoke next.

Instead of loss, his pain is the guilt he said he feels every day when he thinks of the 18-year-old girl he killed when he drove drunk and went the wrong way on Interstate 275 in 2002.

"The guilt will never go away," he said. "I think of her parents, the wedding they won't plan, the grandchildren they'll never have."

Then it was Melissa's turn. She said her brother Andrew planned to become a pharmacist. He was a loving brother, athletic and funny, she said.

"He was my best friend."

She recalled the 2 a.m. phone call and her mother screaming.

"I could see her chest lifting up and down like she wasn't getting enough air," she said.

She remembered arriving at the crash scene and seeing Andrew, the tubes, the masks, the helicopter, the blood. And later, at the hospital, his brain so swollen that it began to come out of his ears.

"I'm the type of person who has to fix things when they go wrong. But I can't fix this," she said. I can only help prevent it from happening to other people and their families.

"So I ask you," she concluded, "is one night of 'fun' really worth a life?"

Terri Bryce Reeves can be reached at treeves@tampabay.rr.com.

[Last modified March 22, 2007, 23:04:40]


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