Vigils to honor the victims of drunken drivers

December 05, 1993|By Phyllis Brill | Phyllis Brill,Staff Writer

Laid off from his job as a long-haul truck driver, Thomas Fitzgerald was driving a cab to make ends meet when a 19-year-old youth, returning home from a party, sped around a curve on Hanson Road in Edgewood and met him head-on at an estimated 80 mph.

The impact of the crash left Mr. Fitzgerald's body a twisted wreck that had to be cut from the mangled taxi and flown to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore.

He spent 100 days in the hospital as doctors patched him back together. His leg had been broken, his knee shattered and his skull crushed. Every bone in his face was broken. He was unrecognizable to his family.

In the seven years since the accident, the 61-year-old man has had countless operations to repair the damage, including skin grafts and bone transplants.

Two years ago, after nearly every procedure known to surgeons failed to repair his knee, his left leg was amputated above the knee. He was fitted with a prothesis.

He's put his body back together again, but he's hardly whole.

"Emotionally and psychologically," he says, "I'm only halfway there." He still uses a wheelchair to get around, has not adapted to the prothesis, rarely leaves the house and has no idea when he might drive any kind of vehicle again. There's still a lot of healing to do.

And though he was the only person in the cab, he was not the only victim. His wife, son and two daughters, too, all have their own stories to tell of the desperate effects the accident had on their lives.

The other driver, who was hospitalized for seven days, was charged with three traffic violations, including speeding and negligent driving. But he was never declared legally drunk.

By the time he was tested for alcohol consumption, says Mr. Fitzgerald's wife Sue, the other driver was found to have a blood-alcohol content just below .07, the state's legal limit for driving under the influence.

"He paid his fines and walked," she said.

The Fitzgeralds' story is not unique, say members of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the national group that fights for justice for the victims of drunken drivers. Those victims are to be the focus of a candlelight vigil on the steps of the Harford County Circuit Courthouse Saturday evening.

At the same time, a national vigil of remembrance will be held in Chicago to honor those injured and killed by drunken drivers. The national vigil is held every year during National Drunk Driving Awareness Month.

The candle lightings are held to honor the dead, but also to offer solace for the living -- the victims who survived unthinkable accidents as well as their families, who must pick up the pieces of their shattered lives, says Kimberly Schaffel, president of MADD's Harford County chapter.

"It devastated our family," says Mrs. Fitzgerald of Aug. 16, 1986, accident that made her 54-year-old robust husband a cripple. She said it not only burdened them financially but destroyed the innocence of their three children.

"Our son wanted revenge. I had to convince him he couldn't go that route," she says of Tim, who was 18 at the time and knew of the drunken driver as a fellow student of his sister's at Joppatowne High School.

"He quit a summer National Guard training program two weeks before graduation and took a part-time job to help pay expenses," said his mother. "In the fall, he continued working and didn't return to high school to graduate with his senior class."

"He felt he had to be the man of the family."

Today, he rarely takes a drink and rarely talks about the accident. As did his younger sister Tracy Fitzgerald, who was 15 at the time, he "went into a shell" after the accident, says Mrs. Fitzgerald.

"They're carrying around a lot of bitterness," she says, "because that kid got off scot-free."

Mrs. Fitzgerald says the driver who hit her husband paid about $1,500 in fines, but that was a fraction of what Mr. Fitzgerald's medical bills have totaled.

"We had to file for bankruptcy. We lost everything," she said, explaining that because her husband had been laid off he had no health insurance. And because of his temporary status as a cabdriver, he was not covered by workmen's compensation benefits.

"That boy had $20,000 insurance, but our medical bills were over a quarter-million dollars," she said.

Older daughter Tammy Fitzgerald, then 20, "put her life on hold to help me," says Mrs. Fitzgerald. Tammy, who had just started a second job to save for her own apartment, began turning the extra earnings over to the family pool.

In time, she joined MADD and became a speaker on the Victims Impact Panel. Among other things, members of the panel take turns telling the story of their personal tragedies to convicted drunken drivers who have been ordered by the court to attend their sessions.

"The people in MADD have been my saviors," says Tammy Fitzgerald. "No one in my family had had any meaningful counseling, but I had to have an outlet. I was victimized as much as my father, if not physically. They helped me get through that."

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