Celebrations of life like anniversaries, birthdays, and holidays haven’t been commemorated with joy in my family for over 30 years. Some people call it our “new normal” but there is nothing normal about it.
On March 29th the 40th birthday of my daughter Patty was celebrated; there was no cake, no presents, and no party, in fact, there hasn’t been any of it for thirty years! Patty was killed in a drunk driving crash May 14th, 1988. This year, May 14th will mark another celebration without a party, gifts, or toasts. Instead we will be observing the 30th anniversary of the Kentucky Bus Crash. We will remember that night thirty years ago when sixty-seven innocent passengers on a bus, returning from a fun filled day at King Island Theme Park, were struck without warning, by a repeat drunk driving offender. The driver hit the bus head on causing it to catch on fire and in a matter of minutes, twenty- seven people (three adults and 24 children) tragically burned to death. Thirty nine children and 1 adult survived the crash– many were physically hurt and even more experienced emotional trauma. The aftermath of this crash has continued for the past 30 years.
This was the night that changed my life forever. My daughter Patty at age 10 was the youngest child killed in the deadliest drunk driving crash in our nation’s history. I think all of us agree that we hope this record is never broken.
During these thirty years….it has been said to me, “Isn’t it time you got over this?” My answer, “I will NEVER get over Patty’s death, I have simply learned to live with it”. Even though it has been thirty years, I still have dark, dark days, but with friends and my MADD family, I get through them. I have worked very hard to regain the sense of control that I had prior to Patty’s death. For thirty years, I have been on the front lines in the fight to end drunk and drugged driving. I wanted to do everything I could so the death of Patty and the 26 who died with her, and those 40 precious survivors of the crash, was not in vain.
Patty was a precious child, a big sister, an A student, and a friend. As a fourth grader she had planned her future. She wanted to attend college at the Air Force Academy and then on to Harvard Law School. When I asked her why she wanted to be a lawyer her answer was, “Mom, I want to make a difference!” Well I think I can honestly say, Patty, you have made a difference. You gave me the courage to fight the fight in hopes of ending drunk driving. Through Victim Services, MADD, helped me gain my sense of control. I became a Victim Advocate and was able to support other victims of this violent crime. I’ve met so many individuals in the organization who understood just what I was going through and validated my feelings. MADD has and will always hold such a special place in my heart because they were there in the very early days of my grief and they continue to be an important part of my life.
When serving as the MADD National President I was given a platform to remember the 27 who died and honor the 40 who survived the Kentucky Bus Crash. I was able to fight for victims and survivors of this crash who were unable to. MADD provided me the channel to make a difference. After 30 years, I am still in the fight to end drunk driving because there are still victims of this violent crime.
As we draw close to the 30th Anniversary of the crash I will continue to remember Patty, I will remember her contagious laugh, her caring heart, her intellect and her innocence. I know that tears will be shed because I still miss her. I miss that she will never graduate from the Air Force Academy, she will never graduate from Harvard, she will never marry, and she will never have children. I will shed tears in knowing that my daughter Jeanne lost her best friend in a preventable crash and that her three children will never know their Aunt Patty because of a man’s wrong choice to drink and drive. On the 30th Anniversary I will remember her poignant words in a speech she delivered five days before her death. “In life there are many choices to be made, sometimes we lack the knowledge to make the right choices and must learn from our mistakes and the mistakes of others. You must be careful to make the right choices because you may only have one chance.” My daughter did not choose to die in a bus crash caused by a man who made the wrong choice to drink and drive. But she did die, and her death made me choose to fight against impaired driving in hopes that other lives will be saved. Thirty years is a long time to fight, but Patty is worth it.