Author: Emotional Wounds Caused By DUIs Are Slow To Heal

Thousands of drunk-driving accidents happen each year, but in his new book, "Henderson's Light," journalist Jack Torry focuses on just one. Through more than one-hundred interviews, he reconstructs the night of a fatal car wreck in Birmingham, Michigan in 1965 — and traces its long term consequences.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, a man who spent more than three decades in prison for a crime he did not commit. He just came home for Christmas. What are his plans for his new life in the new year?

And speaking of New Year's, this is the time of year when you see the public service announcements of free rides home if you've had too much to drink, and, of course, warnings about police checkpoints and severe legal consequences. It is the drinking season.

But there are thousands of drunk-driving fatalities every year. But what happens after the wreck is cleared and the broken bodies taken away? What happens to the people left behind? Journalist Jack Torry decided to find out. In his new book, "Henderson's Light," Torry tells the story of one car wreck in his hometown of Birmingham, Michigan, in 1965. He describes what led up to that night, what happened later, and he's with us now. Jack, welcome. Thank you so much for being with us.

Mr. JACK TORRY (Author, "Henderson's Light"): Glad to be here.

MARTIN: This car wreck is a terrible story, but it's not a story that any one of us has heard. I mean, in 1965, you were 13. A drunk driver slammed into a car filled with teenagers. This was their hometown. There were deaths. I'm going to let you tell the rest of the story. But what do you think it was about this story that stayed with you all those years later?

Mr. TORRY: I've often wondered that, but what happened was they towed the two cars up to local gas stations, and you saw them there for the next week. There was a Skylark, a Buick Skylark, that looked like it was about half of its size, and there was a Ford Galaxy convertible that looked like a V. Those memories just stuck with me.

I didn't know these kids. They were several years older than I was, but throughout the years, Michel, whenever I would see or hear about a crash involving a bunch of kids or involving alcohol, this just popped into my brain. And I finally decided that if this had this kind of an impact on me, and I didn't know these people, then the people involved, it must have been a very, very powerful game-changing life experience.

MARTIN: And what happened in the crash?

Mr. TORRY: In the crash, there were five teenagers in the Buick Skylark. They had been - they were age 16, 17. They had been out having pizza and Coca-Cola. And it was about 10:20 in the evening, and they were driving through the main area of Birmingham, Michigan, which is an upscale suburb of Detroit.

From the other direction, a 22-year-old man who had been drinking slammed into them at about 75 miles an hour. He was killed instantly, three of the kids in the car were killed, two were badly, badly injured and weren't expected to live through the night.

MARTIN: But they did.

Mr. TORRY: They did. The two of them who survived, one was a guy named Adere(ph). Another was a young man named Bruce Barrage(ph). They went through months and months of rehabilitation.

Bruce Barrage literally had to teach himself how to walk again. He was in a body cast for months. He lost his sense of smell. He lost his sense of taste.

Mike Adere had a hole in his head from hitting the radio knob with his head during the impact. He had a torn aorta, although nobody knew it that night, and he had - his face was just a complete mess. He has had five operations since then.

So I decided I wanted to follow how these two young men lived through this crash. As a part of that, then, it became obvious I couldn't separate Mike, Bruce, from the families of the dead kids. I mean, nothing for these people was ever the same. It's a wound that never heals.

MARTIN: Why is that?

Mr. TORRY: Because these kids, they're at an age where they're indestructible. I mean, in many ways - I hate to bring it up this way - but this is a parent's worst nightmare. These five kids went out and did nothing wrong. They were just going out and having some pizza and Coca-Cola. And they leave in the afternoon, and they're very healthy, and two hours later, three of them are dead. So it's the shock. It's the this shouldn't happen. And I think that made it very, very difficult.

The best thing I can tell people is this is a totally preventable accident. This should never happen. Don't drink and drive.

MARTIN: To that point, the number of alcohol-related traffic fatalities has actually plummeted over the years. In the early 1980s, there were more than 30,000 alcohol-related traffic fatalities. In 2008, there were fewer than 12,000. What's your take on this?

Mr. TORRY: Well, there's a number of reasons for that. First of all, states have gotten a little bit more aggressive on trying to enforce drunk driving laws. For example, there are these new ignition locks and states such as New Mexico, if you're a first time offender, you have to - when you get in your car, you have to blow on the thing or the car won't start.

So, there's tougher enforcement and I think people have become a little bit more aware. But at the same time, the numbers that really throw you for a loop here, about 33 people die everyday in alcohol related crashes. That number spikes at this time of the year to about 54 a day.

MARTIN: Do you think that the mentality has changed? I mean, the law has certainly changed but the mentality has changed, where people really get that this, as you put it, is a preventable thing, it doesn't have to happen? Do you think that the mentality has changed, as a society we're getting it?

Mr. TORRY: I think that's probably true to some degree, but I also think it's just that states and law enforcement people have figured out ways to get people who shouldn't be drinking and driving away from a car. And, you know, it's possible in the next 10 years that you could have the technology that would literally make it impossible for anybody to start a car were they drinking, that type of thing.

The other thing too is the numbers have plummeted since the Mothers Against Drunk Driving formed in 1980 or '82. And I suspect part of that has to do with they've been a very visible campaign, they've worked the state legislatures very aggressively, and so I have a suspicion that those are the reasons that those numbers have declined. But, at the same time, it's 11,000 people a year.

MARTIN: Who should be here.

Mr. TORRY: Who should be here. There's no reason for this ever to happen. And look, I mean, the problem is it's not like - it's not - this might get me in trouble with the Michigan State Police, but when I was 18 and 19, I mean, I thought nothing of having a couple, three beers then driving myself home. Well, that was crazy. It was nutty. You think that nothing bad can possibly happen to you. And this book describes, oh, yes, terrible things can happen to you.

MARTIN: Well, having spent this time all these years later looking into this, did reporting this story put something to rest for you? Do you think you understand it now?

Mr. TORRY: I think I understand what drove me to do this. I wanted to know what happened to those people and I wanted to find out how they had somehow made their lives work or not work. You know, this is not a completely grim book. I mean these are people who figured out ways to survive.

MARTIN: Jack Torry is the author of the new book "Henderson's Light." It talks about the long-term consequences of one fateful night in his hometown in Birmingham, Michigan in 1965. He is also a reporter in the Washington bureau of Ohio's Columbus Dispatch newspaper. He was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studio. Jack, thank you so much for joining us. Happy New Year to you.

Mr. TORRY: Happy New Year to you.

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