It's springtime, and for a high school junior or senior, thoughts of prom and upcoming graduations take center stage. The dress, the tux, the scholarship deadlines, and the countdown to that last day of school ... it's all so exciting, so full of promise.
For the adults in those students' lives, however -- teachers, families and first responders -- the thought of prom and graduation can elicit much different feelings. It takes just one hurt kid to change an entire community, one kid who gets behind the wheel of the car after drinking at prom, to set dozens of people on a different course for the rest of their lives. To that end, typically each year high schools host guest speakers near prom in an effort to grab the attention of kids and educate them about the dangers of drinking and driving or driving high.
In this case, it was a grown man who spoke through tears to the 190 students at Hotchkiss High School that got their attention. As he told the story about how he lost his high school sweetheart and his 2 1⁄2-year-old son to a drunk driver, he wasn't the only one crying -- some of the staff and many of the students shed tears, too. Chad Petronovich was the guest of Sgt. Scott Gardner of the Colorado State Patrol. The two spoke to the student body last week.
It was a beautiful September day in 1995 when Chad's life was forever changed, he said. He was serving in the U.S. Air Force in Cuba when his commanding officer told him his family had been involved in a car crash near Greeley. His wife, Tammy, and his son, Sean, had been hit head on by a woman whose blood alcohol content was .350 percent -- nearly four times the legal limit. The impact of the crash was about equal to the blast from a stick of dynamite. The drunk driver was driving the wrong way down the highway when she crashed into Chad's family. When emergency responders arrived and began to extricate the drunk driver from her vehicle, the steering wheel had to be forcibly removed from her body. Smashed into her ribcage was a vodka bottle. She died a few hours after the crash.
Tammy Petronovich died immediately. Sean was airlifted to a hospital in Denver, where he fought for nine hours to live before finally succumbing to his injuries.
"I know you're young and you don't think about these kinds of things now," he told the students. "But I want to tell you what that feeling is like to hold your dead child. I can't get that picture out of my head, and I still think about it every day." He told the students how he later would look at his wife's car, and he still to this day remembers seeing Cheerios smashed into the carpet, Cheerios his son had been eating from his carseat in the back. "I instantly hated this woman," he said of the woman who killed his family. "And in that moment, I was glad she lost her life. Even now, 22 years later, I struggle to forgive her.
"A parent should never have to bury a child," he said. "I want you to think about that when you're faced with these challenges." He encouraged students to think about their families, their teachers and others in the community who would be devastated if something similar happened in Hotchkiss. "Think about the horror they'll have to live with every single day. In your life, you will have highs and lows, and you'll have to make choices every day. Make the right choice."
Sgt. Gardner told the students that every day in the U.S., 18 teens die as a result of impaired driving. "Look to the left. Look to the right. Which one of your friends will it be?" he asked. "Making smart choices sometimes means that you make choices for someone else. The decisions that you make every single day will impact the rest of your life. The choices you make need to be smart choices. Be part of the solution -- don't be part of the problem."
He also warned students about distracted driving, and showed a video of a crash in Texas where a driver was texting and driving, hit a passenger bus head on, and killed 14 of the 15 occupants. "Start making better decisions," he said. He challenged the students (and the adults in the room), for the next two weeks to put their phones in a hard-to-reach place every time they get into their car. "See if you can go two weeks without looking at your phone when you're driving," he said.
At the conclusion of the presentation, as students made their way down the halls to their fourth hour classes, some of them sporting wet eyes, a few of them made their way over to the two men and shared a few words with them. These presentations, Chad explained, were his way of dealing with his grief, honoring his family, and hopefully making an impact on a kid's life.