A Christmas tree stands in the waiting area of the Louisiana Department of Motor Vehicles. Rather than ornaments, it’s decorated with photos of people injured or killed by drunk drivers.
One shows a little girl holding sunflowers, another, a teenager wearing a basketball jersey. There’s a man playing his guitar and a soldier in uniform.
On Saturday, Mothers Against Drunk Driving hosted its annual ceremony in honor of victims represented on the tree. Accidents caused by drunk driving peak between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, according to Valerie Cox, victim services manager for Louisiana MADD.
Last year, 252 people died in alcohol-related crashes in Louisiana. White lights on the tree at the DMV office on Independence Boulevard are replaced with red lights when someone in Louisiana is killed by a drunk driver during the holiday season.
Cox noted that drunk driving is “100 percent preventable. We’re not looking for a cure. There is one.”
Eric Searcy, who was hit by a drunk driver the same day he made what was then the University of Southwestern Louisiana baseball team, told attendees that so much has been stolen from him, but he is able to go on because “this is the only life I get.”
Just hours before the accident on Dec. 5, 1998, Searcy told his dad that “life couldn’t be more perfect than it is now.” He hasn’t walked a day since.
Searcy still considers himself lucky, though. After numerous surgeries and three years of physical therapy, he regained enough upper body strength to roll his own wheelchair. He completed a master’s degree in health care administration at LSU and now works as a health care consultant.
Not all victims get that chance. Another young athlete, Grambling football player Jermaine Carter, was killed by a drunk driver on Jan. 17, 2003. He made the track team the day before.
His mother, Darcel Carter, is now active in MADD, which she said has been instrumental in passing state laws that toughen penalties for drinking and driving.
Carter said most people are unaware of how dangerous drunk driving can be. No one wants someone they love to get hurt, she said.
Drunk drivers have caused tragedy twice in Carter’s family. Her aunt, Lenora Pitts, sat next to her at the ceremony. Pitts’ grandson, Johnny Gerard Galmon-Pitts, was killed in a wreck March 30 on the Mississippi River bridge. He was 26.
MADD is a blessing, Pitts said, because “it lets us know we’re not alone.”
Still, it is a club no one wants to be in, Cox said. Families like those gathered around the photo-laden Christmas tree offer support for one another, but little can soothe the heavy, painful burdens they carry.
Emmie Woodruff’s son, Logan, was 5 when he was killed in a wreck caused by a drunk driver on July 4, 2008, in Walker. Her other son, Chandler, survived but suffered a brain injury that causes him to have seizures. He can’t use his left arm, and his left leg is weak.
Chandler is 9 but functions at the level of a 4- or 5-year-old, Woodruff said. However, Chandler remembers his brother and sometimes even laughs when he talks about him.
Woodruff remembers the drunk driver who drove a huge van into her little white car.
“Even if I’ve taken a sip, I call my mom to pick me up,” she said. “That kind of stuff scares you.”