Though colorful holiday decorations gave the rotunda of the Maryland State House a festive and joyous atmosphere, the message that Tony and Hazel Pung came to deliver was anything but.
In voices shaking with emotion, the Pungs told a rapt audience how their 23-year-old daughter, Terri, and her fiance were killed 19 years ago by a drunken driver, and about how the pain had not gone away and probably never would.
"The pain is reactivated each time we read about or hear about another similar event, which happens all too frequently in our state," Tony Pung said.
It was in the hope of preventing such tragedies that the Pungs joined several other friends and family members of victims of drunken drivers for the third annual Maryland Remembers Ceremony last week.
Clutching pictures of victims, several friends and family members walked on stage to announce the names of their loved ones.
The event was held by the Maryland Impaired Driving Coalition, a task force organized by the State Highway Administration's Highway Safety Office. The coalition is made up of elected officials, community activist groups, private agencies and various representatives from the local, state and federal governments.
"This is the period of the year with the most drinking-related crashes," said Neil J. Pedersen, administrator at the State Highway Administration. "Now is the time when we really have to highlight the issue and make people aware of the seriousness of the problems and what the consequences will be."
Pedersen repeated several times that drunken driving has become a "public health challenge." He noted that automobile accidents account for the largest proportion of deaths in Maryland among people ages 3 to 34.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Maryland recorded 235 fatalities in 2005 in impaired-driving accidents, accounting for about 38 percent of traffic fatalities in the state.
Over the past five years, alcohol-related crashes have killed an average of 275 people a year on Maryland roads, the NHTSA said.
The coalition lauded lawmakers for their efforts to curb drunken-driving accidents. Those efforts include legislation passed in 2006 that toughens sanctions against repeat offenders and those who refuse a Breathalyzer test but are later found to have a high blood-alcohol content; increasing spending on media; allocating more than $890,000 in supplemental enforcement funds in 2005 for sobriety checkpoints and DUI patrols; and conducting numerous educational programs for officers to strengthen their abilities to spot impaired drivers.
In 2005, the number of fatalities resulting from impaired driving dropped by 18 percent. Nancy Kelly, IDC Legislative Committee vice chair and Mothers Against Drunk Driving volunteer, credited much of the success to aggressive police work around the state.
The Maryland Impaired Driving Coalition presented Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and his wife, Kendel, with a plaque for their support. Ehrlich urged Marylanders this holiday season to call 911 if they suspect a driver is driving while impaired.
"Particularly here in this holiday season, for one reason or another, our culture encourages drinking and driving," he said. "It's a wink, wink and a nod, nod. It's the house, it's the office, it's the fill-in-the-blank Christmas party. Everybody has a few drinks and everybody has a good time, but we forget that everybody needs to go home."
Ehrlich praised friends and family members of victims for sharing their stories.
For many at the event, including Jerry and Paula Celentano, involvement meant something different.
"I don't know if its bravery. It's just that we have such a deep love for our daughter," said Jerry Celentano of his daughter, Alisa, who was killed five years ago at age 18 when an impaired driver returning home from happy hour slammed head-on into the van she was riding in. Alisa had been preparing to go to college to become a social worker.
"When you lose them, you just want to spend that much more time letting everyone know not just what we're missing, but what you're missing," Celentano said.
For Paula Celentano and others, volunteering for MADD and attending events such as the Maryland Remembers Ceremony is cathartic.
"Our involvement with MADD is our therapy," Paula Celentano said. "The more time my husband can say Alisa's name, the longer she's still here. You want to take something horrible and try to make something positive about it."