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Sean Kirst: A grieving sister, a lifetime vow to fight drunken driving

There ought to be cousins.

That's what Deanna Kwiatkowski Russo thinks about whenever she returns to Blasdell. She and her husband Jason have three young children who are always delighted to see their grandparents, but those little ones cannot fully understand what they've lost.

The house should be in an uproar. Deanna's kids should be running around with other children more or less their age, cousins they'd look forward to seeing throughout the year. They should all be packing into a car for a Lenten visit to the Broadway Market in Buffalo, just like Deanna and her sister Karen used to do with their father and grandfather, a joyous ritual that repeated itself each year in the weeks before Easter.

That can't happen. The chance is gone.

"We've been robbed of so much," Deanna said. She never wants the intensity of that absence to wear away, because she believes the aching magnitude, in itself, generates the passion that might save another life.

Twenty years ago this week, her sister Karen – on the brink of her 19th birthday – was in the passenger's seat of a friend's car on a typical March evening. Karen, who'd been active in Stop DWI groups as a teen, was home on break from her freshman year at St. Bonaventure University, excited about greeting high school classmates she hadn't seen in a long time.

In West Seneca, a man with a long history of drunken driving, a man who'd already been arrested that day for driving without a license, veered across Seneca Street and hit their car head-on.

Deanna was almost 22. She remembers that she'd been in her apartment earlier that night, working on resumes, while her sister was at home with their parents, Bob and Angela Kwiatkowski. Deanna called the house, looking to talk to her mother, and Karen answered the phone.

"Oh, it's you," she said in mock scorn, sisters giving each other good-natured grief in the way close siblings often do, because Karen was waiting for calls from her old friends. She handed the phone to her mother, and Deanna – focused on her task – never said all the things she wishes she could say now.

They'd done laundry together the night before, lost in the beautifully mundane rhythm of folding warm cotton clothes with that fresh scent of detergent. Deanna didn't think twice about it, because what they did casually on a March evening in 1998 should have been what they would do, side by side, into their old age.

Instead, Karen was killed a day later.

"I loved her, and I miss her, and not a day goes by without me thinking about her," Deanna said.

People tell her that will pass, that happier memories will transcend what she remembers of that night. If so, Deanna said, it hasn't happened yet. Twenty years ago, Deanna was still a few years away from carrying a mobile phone. She and Jason, then her boyfriend, came home that night to a phone call from her mother.

She said Karen had been in a collision and was at Mercy Hospital. She didn't know much more. Deanna and Jason got to the emergency room first. The staff brought them into a waiting room where no one would tell them anything, and it wasn't until her parents arrived and the police took them into a second waiting room that it began to dawn on her out of nowhere, like the roar of the sea.

"There was an accident," an investigator said, "and Karen didn't make it."

Deanna remembers everything about that moment, but little else about that night. It would turn out that 28-year-old Michael R. McCarthy had been arrested earlier that day, after a service station worker called police because he believed McCarthy was drunk. Investigators gave McCarthy a sobriety test and he registered an .04, a fraction beneath the level that would have meant he was impaired.

West Seneca police charged him with driving with a revoked license. According to reports in The Buffalo News, a friend paid $80 to bail McCarthy out. Four hours later, investigators said, McCarthy returned to a tire dealership where his car was locked in a garage, smashed his way out and drove west on Seneca Street.

Even as police began another search, his vehicle went straight into the car in which Karen was riding.

McCarthy, who would serve about 10 years in state prison, later told a state Supreme Court justice he'd been drinking vodka and tea in the hours before the crash. He pleaded guilty to vehicular manslaughter, vehicular assault and felony unlicensed driving.

It was his third drinking-related conviction in five years.

Deanna hopes much of what happened at that time might not happen today, when awareness of drinking and driving has intensified. In Karen's memory, the Erie County Legislature passed a law in 2004 that called for the 12-hour impoundment of any vehicle owned by someone arrested for drinking and driving.

But Deanna also knows a stubborn mindset, with too many drinkers, too often endures. She is aware that more than 10,000 Americans died in 2015 in accidents linked to drinking and driving, roughly one-third of all national driving fatalities.

Beyond all else, she worries about the countless drivers who go out and drink too much while believing they are the exceptions, the ones who can handle it, the ones who will not cause harm behind the wheel. She knows there are too many men and women - drinking in the bars at night, or in the parking lot at football games, or pounding beer after beer at festivals - who still have their car keys in their pockets.

Sooner or later, people die for absolutely no reason.

So Deanna speaks to every group she can address, especially student organizations. She and Jason live now in Columbus, Ohio, where she works as a freelance writer and puts her heart into their children. Their oldest daughter Alyssa, whose middle name is Karen, is about to turn 8 - and is asking more and more questions about her aunt.

Deanna often goes to the cemetery to share all of that with her sister. It is part of the belief that carries her into each new day, an idea she remembers whenever she hears "Who You'd be Today," a song by Kenny Chesney.

If she can bring Karen back to life for other people, if she can make them appreciate the scope of the loss, maybe a few will think twice and change their behavior.

Maybe some other family will not need to go through the same thing.

The Kwiatkowski sisters: Karen (left) and Deanna. (Family image)

Toward that goal, Deanna shares the stories that to her still seem so fresh. She describes the little girl who rode bicycles with her in Kaisertown. She recalls the annual journeys with their dad to buy butter lambs at the Broadway Market, images of car rides that return most powerfully during Lent.

She has vivid memories of her sister as a teenager, especially the exact fragrance - Loves Baby Soft Perfume - that Karen often wore, an aroma that in the mall, or some busy corridor, always carries Deanna back to her sister.

Those images go with her whenever she speaks to a group, whether it's teenagers in the early years of driving or adult motorists in a driving safety class. She does not ask for abstinence, but responsibility.

If you're a designated driver, she said, your commitment should be not to drink at all. If you're out drinking and realize you shouldn't get behind the wheel, she said services like Uber make it easier than ever to get home without taking a risk.

The two Kwiatkowskis, Deanna said, were typical sisters.  She remembers how they'd play endless games of Uno, sometimes falling into the casual arguments siblings always have. Deanna was the oldest, and their parents, bemused, would tell her the same thing, a request that Deanna still does her best to honor.

She's the only sister you've got. Be good to her.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at or read more of his work in this archive.

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