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Speaking out helps shattered families cope with loss ; People touched by drunken driving use panel to deal with grief while educating motorists

Luanne Zuccari has a message for those who may get carried away celebrating the holidays by drinking too much alcohol, then getting behind the wheel.

Drinking and driving can have fatal consequences.

Zuccari lost her youngest son, Andy, then 14, to a drunken driver 14 years ago outside their home in Bergholz, as he was crossing the street on his three-wheeler.

"I know this man who killed my son didn't intend to hurt anyone," Zuccari said. "He was on his way home from a party and had a family of his own. But he made a very bad choice when he got behind the wheel of his van after he'd been drinking."

The driver, who was sentenced to a year in jail, shattered the lives of the Zuccari family.

"No matter how sorry he was," Zuccari said, "he could not make this right."

Zuccari is among a group of people who have been forced to live with the consequences of drunken driving and choose to work through part of their grief by serving on the Niagara County DWI Victim Impact Panel.

Their message to anyone who would drink and drive: Sometimes, there are no second chances when it comes to avoiding a fatal mistake.

Victim impact panels have added a persuasive tool to address drunken driving in Niagara County since 1994, after a county defendant was ordered to attend one. Then-Second Assistant District Attorney Ronald Winter accompanied the defendant to the nearest panel, in Batavia, and sat in on the proceeding.

"I was moved to tears and thought maybe this was the key to stopping the carnage on the highways," Winter said.

Today, every county in New York State has a victim impact panel.

During the first year after her son was killed, Zuccari became a co-founding member and coordinator of an area chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Mary Incorvia, whose son, Tony, also was killed by a drunken driver, was the other co-founder and got Zuccari involved as a speaker on the victim impact panel.

"It's cathartic," Zuccari said of the panel. Losing a child to a drunken driver is "the absolute most horrifying thing to have to accept in your life. You have to accept it, and it's not acceptable. So you have to deal with it on a daily basis."

The impact panel helps.

Zuccari said talking to members of a group that maybe will change the choices they make helped her deal with the grief and loss and enabled her to move forward.

After her son died, she said, "I couldn't do the things I was programmed to do [as a mother]. I couldn't wash his clothes and take him to school and cook for him and make him a birthday cake. That stuff was suddenly gone. [The victim impact panel] was something I could do because I was his mother. It was a way for me to still be his mother."

The Zuccari family also has found another way to honor Andy. It started a memorial scholarship in 1999, the year Andy would have graduated from Niagara-Wheatfield High School.

The family has awarded about $15,000 in scholarships to Niagara-Wheatfield graduates who embody the qualities of character they cherished in their son, which include compassion, a willingness to help, kindness and a sense of humor.

Zuccari realizes that she and other panelists will never get to everyone required to hear their stories, but she said it is gratifying to think that there are people who won't drink and drive again. She said she hopes that the victim impact panel will make them think twice when they are faced with the choice to drink and drive.

Theodore A. Brenner, a deputy district attorney and former Marine, now runs the Niagara County panels. He checks in the more than 100 people who are forced to attend in any given month, and barks out orders at them to sit down and shut up before the speakers begin. The tone in the room changes quickly as victims share how drunken driving has changed their lives.

"Everybody wants the legal system in New York to be tougher," Brenner told The Buffalo News, "but the victim impact panel is another side. It's designed to reach their conscience."

During a panel earlier this year, Brenner told those charged with alcohol-related crimes, "Maybe there's a reason you are here. We are here to reach the good side of you. This is a chance to see the future. This is a wake-up call. We know the ending for these [panelists]."

Dennis Gleason, 58, of Niagara Falls, is another panelist whose life changed as the result of drunken driving.

His vehicle was struck by a drunken driver more than 20 years ago. He has had 28 surgeries related to the crash and takes Tylenol daily to deal with chronic pain.

"I had to learn to walk again at age 26," Gleason said. "Not a lot of people know the consequences. Every day there is something to remind you. It's just the little things, like spending Thanksgiving in the hospital, having your jaw wired shut, having a rod put in your leg."

Gleason said that following the crash he remembers his car being cut in half to get him out and being told he would never walk again. He also lost four jobs because not many schools or organizations want a basketball coach or gym teacher who has to learn to walk again.

He now works at the Northpointe Alcoholism Council as a senior prevention specialist, looking to help prevent what happened to him ever happening to someone else.

For panelist Kathryn Goodman-Frerichs of Wilson, the pain goes back even further, after her father suffered severe head injuries 52 years ago in a crash involving a drunken driver.

Frerichs, who was 14 at the time her father was struck, said she saw her father struggle for 20 years, suffering from major mood swings and anger that was hard to control. Her mother was left alone to raise five children, one only six weeks old, while her aunt and uncle cared for her father because he was unable to control his temper.

"On December 31, 1958, my family's world changed forever," Frerichs said. "Our children and grandchildren never got to know their grandfather. It's so very sad."

It's the kind of sadness that Frerichs and her fellow panelists hope no other family will have to begin dealing with this holiday season.

"We went through our whole lives never expecting anything like this," Zuccari said, but a driver with a 0.26 percent blood-alcohol content -- more than three times today's limit for intoxication -- "just came down our street and ruined our lives, and he ruined his. He didn't intend to kill Andy. It wasn't planned. It was just a one-second decision [to drive drunk]."

e-mail: nfischer@buffnews.com

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