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Horrifying story told to save lives

  • Story Highlights
  • Couple whose daughter was killed want tougher drunken driving penalties
  • Seven-year-old Katie decapitated during a crash, limousine driver also killed
  • Martin Heidgen is serving 18-years after conviction for 2 counts of murder
  • Victims want severe penalties for other convicted drunken drivers
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Oprah

(OPRAH.com) -- Every day, unthinkable tragedies shatter the lives of many families. For Lisa and David, July 2, 2005, began as a perfect wedding day. More than 200 close friends and relatives gathered on the beach. Lisa's fondest memory of the day was of her nieces, 5-year-old Grace and 7-year-old Katie, dressed like princesses, throwing rocks into the Long Island Sound.

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Jennifer and Neil hope that sharing their story will save lives.

After a day full of celebration, Lisa's parents, Christopher and Denise, along with her sister, Jennifer, Jennifer's husband, Neil, and their daughters, Grace and Katie, all headed home in a limousine.

"I remember looking in on the limo and seeing Kate and waving goodbye and she waved goodbye and never thought that was going to be the type of moment where you're seeing people for the last time," says David, the groom. "It's, I guess, a moment I see every day."

On the ride home, the limo was struck head-on by a drunk driver. Police reports indicate the driver, 24-year-old Martin Heidgen, had at least 14 drinks, and his blood alcohol level was more than three times the legal limit. Police say he was driving 70 miles an hour down the wrong side of a major highway for at least two miles before he crashed into the limousine.

An off-duty security officer returning home from work was first on the scene. "I approached the limo driver, and I guess I went into shock," says New York State court officer Michael Lerardi. "It looked like an explosion. The motor, basically, was just sitting on top of him. I knew he was dead." The limo driver, 59-year-old Stanley Rabinowitz, was killed instantly.

Next to arrive was Lt. Michael Tangney, the bride's uncle, who had attended the wedding just hours before. "I was walking to the rear of the limousine when a gentleman was coming away from it, and he said, 'Don't go back there. It's bad,'" Lt. Tangney says. "I opened the rear door to the limousine and realized it was my family."

Lt. Tangney's brother -- Jennifer's father, Chris -- was lying on the floor, his legs wrapped around the service bar, broken in numerous places. The rest of the family was piled on top of each other. Jennifer's mother, Denise, was severely injured, as was Jennifer's husband, Neil, who tried to crawl out of the limo to get help despite his broken back.

Five-year-old Grace was also trapped inside the wreckage. Jennifer, whose foot was injured, managed to climb out and was searching for Katie, who had been lying on the side seat before the crash. "We couldn't find Kate," Lt. Tangney says. Then, Jennifer made a devastating discovery --Katie had been decapitated by her seat belt.

"Then all of a sudden Mrs. Flynn came out of the car with her child's head in her hand," says Michael Lerardi, one of the 70 paramedics and police officers who were called to the scene.

"I got numb. I thought I was going to collapse," says Officer Christopher Pandolfo. "I looked into the back of the limousine, and I saw Katie's remains. She was wearing this dress, and I just started shaking."

Jennifer walked to side of the road and sat for about an hour with her daughter's head on her lap as she watched her family being cut out of the limousine. Lt. Tangney had to tell his niece it was time to leave. "She very lucidly, very calmly said she wasn't going anywhere. She wasn't leaving Kate," he says. "I climbed into the ambulance, and I told Jennifer that she'd have to come inside now because Grace needed her, and she said she's not going to let go of Kate. And I asked her if she would give her to me, and at that point she turned her over, kissed her goodbye and handed her to me."

'Hopefully we'll save lives'

The accident took the lives of Katie and Stanley and left the rest of the family severely injured, physically and emotionally.

Now, Jennifer and Neil are sharing their story. "Because no one should live the life that I live. I felt a responsibility, an obligation, to come and to tell our story," Jennifer says. "I hope that by knowing the devastation that we lived through that night and still continue to live through, hopefully people are able to see and view the crime [of drunken driving] as it should be seen and viewed and that hopefully we'll save lives."

Jennifer says her back was to the windshield when the crash occurred. She was holding Grace, and Katie was lying down on the side seat of the limo with her seat belt on. Jennifer says she felt a sense of calm at the scene, although others told her she had been screaming. "I wasn't worried for Kate because I do believe she's in heaven," she says. "At the time, I was more worried for us. I never, ever thought that Neil and I would be able to live without her."

Neil, who had broken his back, tried to crawl out of the limo. "I heard my wife screaming, 'Katie's dead,' and I didn't want to accept it so I screamed back, 'No, she's just hurt real bad,'" he says. "I didn't know what Jen knew then."

Jennifer's sister Lisa and brother-in-law David continue to suffer feelings of guilt even after making every effort to ensure no one would drink and drive after their wedding. "We planned better than most would plan. We had a bus to take people back and forth from the hotel to the reception," David says. "We had a whole slew of rooms for people to stay in. We had limousines for parents and family, and that wasn't enough."

Lisa says she feels guilt about everything. "We had it on the Fourth of July weekend. If you look at the statistics, that's DWI season," she says. "Would this have happened if it wasn't on such a big night? Maybe not. Those are the decisions that ultimately killed my family.

"How do we start a life when your start is death?" Lisa asks. "It's your wedding day, and now they don't have their child."

Second-degree murder

Every day is a struggle, Neil and Jennifer say. "Everything I see my children do, I think Kate should be doing. Everything I know they're going to do, I know Kate won't do," he says. "Every time you wake up, you say to yourself, 'This is terrible. I went another day without her,' you know? Or, 'I have to face another day without her.' And every night when I go to sleep, I made it through another day, and I know it's not going to get any better as long as I'm awake."

Denise and Chris, Jennifer's parents, were also severely injured in the crash. Chris, a respected police officer, had to have his leg amputated. Still, the emotional wounds run deeper -- they say the accident destroyed their once close-knit family. "We struggle to be a family that celebrates holidays together," Denise says.

As a police officer, Chris says he's seen drunken drivers and pulled them over, but he never thought drunken driving could affect his family. "It really never occurred to me that this could happen to me."

Stanley, the limo driver, was known to give drunken drivers free limo rides home during his eight and a half years as a driver. His two sons, Keith and Nolan, still grieve the death of their dad. "He was always proud of me and Nolan, no matter what," Kevin says. "Most of his happiness came from us and watching us grow up."

On July 14, 2005, Martin Heidgen was charged with the second-degree murders of Stanley Rabinowitz and Katie Flynn. After five days of jury deliberations, he was convicted on two counts of second-degree murder and related charges. He's serving his 18-year sentence at a correctional center in New York and is now appealing his case.

Jennifer hopes the verdict will demonstrate that not all drunken driving charges can be treated the same. "The way the jury deliberated over it, I think for people, they don't want to think of drunk driving as murder," she says. "So I think that that's something that we hope, that you don't have to lump all drunk driving into one charge. There is the extraordinarily reckless drunk driving, which happened to us."

Although Neil sought counseling after the crash, he says the absence of his daughter is something counseling can't address. "I'm here. This is what I have to deal with, and I will. But like I said, the good part's over," he says. "We had our plan. We decided we were going to have four kids, and that was what we were going to do, you know, and we were set. We were fine. That five-second smash defined my life."

Jennifer says she and Neil are active parents to their three other children. "We continue to do a ton with the children that live. Even more because of that & but there is that feeling that when they do something, you do wish Kate was there to enjoy it as well," she says. "It's hard not to feel it."

In November 2006, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) launched a campaign to eliminate drunken driving within the next 10 years. Part of their goal is for all states to require mandatory ignition interlock devices, which have been shown to be up to 90 percent effective in keeping repeat drunken drivers off the roads.

Before drivers with prior DUIs can start cars with these devices, they must blow into a device that measures their blood alcohol levels. If alcohol is detected, the car will not start.

Currently, only four states require this device for all first-time offenders -- New Mexico, Arizona, Louisiana and Illinois. MADD says 4,000 lives would be saved every year if they were required in every state.

What does Jennifer think of the idea? "I think that's great for the repeat offenders, but I think that for drunk driving to be curbed that it needs to hurt if you were to get caught drunk driving," she says. "So I think that for even the lesser or the first-time offender & it should be the fine with the license, with the community service, with going to a class."

Ultimately, Jennifer believes people need to know that all actions have repercussions. "Actions have consequences, and I think everyone needs to know that and recognize it, and it doesn't make us bad people for not wanting to live in a world of chaos," she says. "If you're going to commit the crime, you're going to get in trouble, and it should be that way. We should all want that."

From "The Oprah Winfrey Show"

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