He Drove Drunk – and Someone Died

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At 19, Dan McCoy ended a night of partying by crashing his car. The accident killed the teenage girl riding in the passenger seat. In his own words, Dan talks about his grief and guilt—and how his bad decision destroyed so many lives.

By Dan McCoy, as told to John DiConsiglio

I remember every detail of the crash. How could I forget? For months, I sat in a prison cell reliving it again and again. I close my eyes and see it all. Amy* sleeping in the passenger seat. My car skidding along the sidewalk, hurtling into a light pole. The shattered windshield. The blood. I can hear myself screaming for help. I can still hear Amy’s faint breaths.

The crash happened six years ago, but not a day goes by when I don’t think about Amy. How she was just 17. How she never got to graduate or go to the prom. I think about all the lives that were ruined because of my bad decision. Not only Amy’s, but also her parents’, her sister’s, her friends’. Not to mention the lives of my own family. Even Amy’s school and her community were affected.

When you choose to drive drunk, maybe you’re worried about how that decision will affect you. Are you going to get in trouble? Will your parents find out? Will you lose your license?

I Barely Knew Amy”

But that’s nothing compared with the grief, sorrow, and loss you’re laying on other people. Trust me. I barely knew Amy before I killed her. Now, many lives are never going to be the same again.

Every school has kids like me. I wasn’t a bad guy. But I wasn’t exactly doing anything to benefit society. I was an athlete at my Maryland high school. I wrestled and played basketball. To me, school was mostly about the social scene. I’d hang out with friends after games. There were parties on weekends. Nothing too wild. But every party had a keg of beer.

Thinking back, I probably drove drunk 100 times before the crash. Not falling-down, blacked-out drunk. But certainly buzzed enough that I shouldn’t have gotten behind the wheel. I probably even told myself I was a better driver when I had a few drinks in me. I was convinced I drove slower and more carefully. None of my friends ever really thought about drunk driving, except to worry that they’d be caught.

I wasn’t big on studying, so college had no appeal for me. After graduating from high school, I joined the Marines. For the first time, I had a direction in my life. I loved the discipline. A Marine’s life was black and white. You did your job. You followed orders. If you needed anything—from a doctor’s checkup to a new pair of boots—they gave it to you.

I was 19 in February 2005. I was looking forward to a long Presidents’ Day weekend. I had plans to hook up with high school friends at the University of Maryland. I left my Marine base in North Carolina after working a half day. I stopped off to say hi to my mom. Then I headed out to visit a buddy at the university. I hadn’t seen him since graduation, so I brought him a house-warming gift: a bottle of vodka. I twisted it open and said, “Dude, let’s get this party started.” We did a few shots. Then another old buddy called and invited us to a frat party.

Underage? Who Cares?

There’s probably a party like this going on at every campus in America all the time. A lot of us were underage, but that didn’t stop us from lining up at the keg. Amy was there with some friends. I didn’t realize she was a high school senior. I thought she was a college student too. But we hit it off. Sometime around 3 a.m., she lost track of her friends. I drove her back to my friend’s apartment. But he’d already gone to bed, and I didn’t have the key code to get inside his building. My cell phone was dead, so I couldn’t even call him.

I figured I had three options: I could take Amy back to the party; I could drop her off on campus and hope she found her friends; or I could drive her back to my folks’ house and let her sleep on our sofa. My parents were only 25 miles away. It seemed like the best choice.

It was close to 5 a.m. I’d been drinking vodka and beer since the late afternoon. I set out on I-395 in my 1985 El Camino. Amy dozed off in the passenger seat. Her brunette hair fell over her face. When I close my eyes, I can still see her like that: Your typical pretty teenager.

And that’s when it happened. I steered off 395 onto Route 355. We were maybe three miles from my parents’ house. And somewhere on that dark, empty road, I blacked out.

My car swerved onto a sidewalk. I swiped a concrete barrier. And then I crashed headfirst into a light pole. It was like an explosion. I jolted awake. I had my seat belt on, but Amy didn’t. The crash threw her into the windshield. She was breathing, but I could tell right away that it was bad. My cell phone was dead, so I jumped out of the car and waved down a passing truck. The driver called 911. Amy was airlifted to a Washington, D.C., hospital. I showed up there too, with just some minor cuts.

Awful Consequences

I was sitting in a daze in the ER when a nurse told me that Amy had died. This ­surreal feeling washed over me, like it wasn’t really happening. It would take months to shake off the shock. I’m still coming to grips with what I did.

That Monday, I went back to the Marine base in North Carolina. I was stripped of my rank and pay. Eventually, they kicked me out of the Marines—or discharged me, as they call it. In Maryland, you’re legally drunk if your blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) is .08 or higher. Mine was .07 when they tested me two hours after the crash. It was probably a lot higher at the time of the accident. But I was underage, so it’s illegal for me to drive with any BAC. I pleaded guilty to homicide by motor vehicle. I had no trial. I was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

But this isn’t really my story. It’s my victim’s story. I didn’t know much about Amy. At my sentencing, her family talked about what a great person she was. They talked about how she loved art and photography. She read the morning announcements at her high school. She was so excited about the prom that she cut out magazine pictures of dresses. I took all that away from them. I looked her mom in the eyes and told her that I wished I could trade places with her daughter.

I spent only a few months in an actual prison cell. For a while, I had suicidal thoughts. I kept asking myself, “Why did I live and Amy die?” In prison, I decided I wanted to be different, a more productive person. I wanted to try to make up for what I did.

While I was in jail, I sent a letter to Amy’s parents, trying to tell them how sorry I am. Later, I got a letter from her sister. She wanted to know what happened that night. I wrote her back with the details she asked for. When I was released, I moved back in with my parents. I’m studying hotel and restaurant management at the University of Maryland. I’ve only just gotten my license back. I’ve been going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. It’s a daily struggle not to drink again.

As part of my sentence, I talk to kids about drinking and driving. I give presentations at school assemblies, to health classes, even to the Girl Scouts. It’s the most important part of my life. I’ve talked to maybe 100 gatherings. I tell kids to think about the choices they make and how they affect other people. I tell them to imagine all the pain and destruction one bad choice can bring. I carry that weight with me every day. So does my family. So does Amy’s. That’s no way to go through life.

 

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