Five members of a Baltimore County family - including an 8-week-old girl - were killed on an Ohio highway after a 24-year-old man, driving his pickup truck the wrong way, struck their minivan head-on, police said yesterday.
The driver, whose pickup ripped off the passenger side of the vehicle carrying the family, had a blood-alcohol level of 0.25 percent, police said, more than three times Ohio's legal limit of 0.08. He was charged yesterday with five counts of aggravated vehicular homicide.
Several members of Daniel G. Griffin Jr.'s family were thrown from the minivan by the impact of the Sunday night crash, their belongings - including Christmas presents, toys and colorful wrappings - scattered about the highway.
Police said Michael P. Gagnon, a construction worker, had appeared so intoxicated before the accident that employees of a restaurant where he had bought a meal called police to report his condition.
Gagnon left the Taco Bell restaurant in Oregon, Ohio, before an officer arrived and was seen getting onto Interstate 280, heading north in the southbound lanes, police said. Shortly before 11 p.m., after driving about four miles, he crashed his 2005 Ford F350 pickup truck "nearly head-on" into the minivan. Griffin, 36, was taking his family home to Parkville after spending the holidays with relatives in Michigan.
Both Gagnon and Griffin survived the accident and were being treated at St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center in Toledo. Gagnon was in the hospital's intensive-care unit, and Griffin was listed as stable. Police said Gagnon would be arrested when his doctors deemed him fit for release.
Griffin's wife, Bethany L. Griffin, 36; Jordan Griffin, 10; and Vadi Griffin, 8 weeks old, were killed, as were two of Griffin's stepchildren, Lacie Burkman, 7, and Haley Burkman, 10. Two other children, Sidney Griffin, 8, and Beau Burkman, 8, survived; Sidney was in critical condition late yesterday, and Beau was released yesterday from the hospital.
Lt. Kevin Keel, a spokesman for the Toledo Police Department, said Gagnon had been seen drinking in a bar in Oregon, near Toledo, before the crash.
"Both vehicles tried to swerve out of the way of the other," the police statement said, referring to Gagnon's truck and Griffin's 1999 Chevrolet Astro minivan. "The heavier Ford truck sheared off the passenger-side doors of the minivan."
Gagnon "smelled of intoxicants" at the scene of the crash and his speech was slurred, police said. Earlier, Gagnon had left a party without telling anyone and was not supposed to have been driving, his brother, Samuel Gagnon, 21, told The Sun by telephone.
"I don't know why he decided to leave," the younger Gagnon said. "Everyone's in shock. We're supposed to be celebrating the new year, but now I got to look forward to my brother in jail the rest of his life."
Samuel Gagnon said that he, his brother and their cousins were partying at a hotel near Toledo and had rented a room. Their sister, who is pregnant, had intended to drive them home, he said, but he discovered that his brother had left alone, abruptly, in his pickup truck, which they use for their construction business in Adrian, Mich.
Worried, Samuel Gagnon said that he called his brother's cell phone. He said his brother answered and simply said, "Sorry, bro." Later, a Fire Department official got on the phone and said his brother had been in an accident. Samuel Gagnon said that his brother had been planning to travel to Iowa a couple of days earlier to begin a construction job but that he had delayed his trip for unknown reasons. "I wish he had just left," he said.
At Carney Elementary School in Baltimore County yesterday, parents and teachers remembered the Burkman girls fondly and talked about the smiling new baby that Bethany Griffin had brought recently to a holiday party.
"She cared about her kids," said the school's principal, Eileen F. Roberta. "She was always there for them. It was a close family."
Haley Burkman was a fifth- grader and Lacie Burkman was a second-grader; their brother Beau attends third grade there.
Guidance counselors, a crisis team and a school psychologist are scheduled to be on hand tomorrow, when students return to classes.
"You see the little kids' faces," Roberta recalled. "I just see Lacie - she had dimples and long, beautiful dark blond hair and always was smiling. She was always happy."
Roberta said Beau also is a happy-go-lucky child while Haley was quieter.
Holly Hayes, Lacie's second-grade teacher, said the little girl "was just a little angel in the room."
"Everyone loved her," Hayes said. "We can keep her memory alive by remembering how sweet she was."
The teacher had given each child in her class a book as a holiday gift, she said. While some opened their books and immediately tried to swap with classmates, Lacie handled the situation differently.
"Lacie opened her book up and said, `I love my book, thank you,'" Hayes said.