Academy grad killed by drunken driver honored

Victim's father launches campaign to stress need for designated drivers

August 29, 2000|By Amanda J. Crawford | Amanda J. Crawford,SUN STAFF

Several hundred midshipmen, family members and friends gathered yesterday at the Naval Academy Chapel to remember Ensign John Robert Elliott, who was killed in a collision with a drunken driver last month - two months after graduation.

As classmates in white uniforms quietly wiped away tears, Elliott's father pledged to stop drunken drivers from taking other lives.

"The best way to keep a drunk driver from hitting someone is to prevent him from getting behind the wheel in the first place," William D. Elliott told the mourners.

Wearing one of the blue-and-gold ribbon distributed before the service - ribbons he hopes will become the symbol of his cause - Elliott announced that he and his family had formed the Hero Campaign to encourage more people to be and choose designated drivers.

John Elliott was killed early July 22 while heading home to Egg Harbor Township, N.J., when a driver - arrested hours earlier on a drunken-driving charge - swerved across a double-yellow line and struck Elliott's 1994 Nissan automobile head-on. The other driver, Michael Pangle of Woodstown, N.J., also died at the scene near Camden, N.J.

Pangle, who had been arrested by New Jersey state police and charged with driving under the influence, was released from custody when a friend came to pick him up, because the charge is considered a motor vehicle rather than criminal violation in that state. The friend is alleged to have driven Pangle to where he had left his 1987 Chevrolet Blazer.

"We never dreamed that after police arrested a drunk driver with blood-alcohol twice the legal limit that he could be released so easily," said William Elliott, who also noted before the service that "a designated driver could have saved my son's life."

His son, 22, was scheduled to attend flight school in the fall.

The elder Elliott, a 51-year-old hospital administrator, said in an interview that he also has vowed to work with his state's lawmakers to amend the statutes that allowed Pangle to drive so soon after his arrest, and "prevent other families from having to go through the tragedy that we have."

Elliott has chosen to honor his son - who he said was often a designated driver - through a program with "the ideals and standards he stood for."

The Hero Campaign takes its name from the Human Education Resources Officer (HERO) program, part of the character-development program at the academy in which four students are elected from each company to act as peer counselors.

John had been a HERO officer all four years he attended the academy, and was named the outstanding HERO officer in his class in the spring, said Lt. John C. Winship, director of the HERO program.

He hopes the Hero Campaign can persuade bars and restaurants to serve free nonalcoholic drinks to designated drivers who wear the blue-and-gold ribbon. The ribbons were handed out with a card bearing John Elliott's picture and the slogan, "Be a Hero. Be a Designated Driver!"

"Laws alone cannot protect us," William Elliott said in an interview.

"But the community getting together and being more active as designated drivers can prevent people from driving drunk in the first place."

John Elliott, a systems engineering major, was buried July 27 in the academy's cemetery.

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