Drunk Driving Tragedy Empowers Teen

For the people of rural Las Vegas, N.M., family is everything, and Paul and Renee Gonzalez seemed to be the most involved parents the town has ever seen.

Renee Gonzalez was a nurse at the local middle school. Paul Gonzalez was a girls' soccer and basketball coach who bought the team bus with his own money. And when anyone in town saw the couple, they had at least one of their children -- Alisha, Arissa, Jacqueline or Selena -- in tow.

"If you ever wanted to see involved parents they were the epitome of perfect parents," said Valerie Villa Lopez, who worked with Renee. "As a teacher you always wanted their kids because you knew if you had their kids you were going to get support."

That all changed in a horrific accident just before Thanksgiving, 2006. The family was returning home from a soccer tournament, driving on a highway at twilight. A drunk driver hit them head-on at 75 miles an hour. Their car crumbled, and the scene shocked even the seasoned cops and ambulance workers who came to their rescue.

"This will probably be the most horrific accident I've encountered in my career," said Lt. Josh Duran, who was at the site shortly after the accident.

But out of the wreckage came a miracle, both for the family and their community. Though the crash killed her parents and three sisters, 15-year old Arissa survived.

"It was a happy moment. She was looking at us," said EMT Genevieve David. "She had big eyes and she was just looking at us. I remember thinking 'wow she's alive.'"

Crash Creates Crusade

The drunk driver died as well, but Arissa sustained only minor injuries. At the hospital, she kept asking for Amor, her chihuahua, who she insisted was in the family's van. Hours after the accident, officials discovered Amor trembling under a car seat.

"It was the only thing that survived the crash with her and it became this little treasure," David said.

Firefighters rushed the dog to Arissa's bedside. And soon, the entire town came out to cheer Arissa as she left the hospital, though grief still was settling in.

"Just knowing that they all went there for me ... it was nice," Arissa said. "The hardest thing I think [is] not being able to go home and see them there, having someone to talk to if I need to."

Arissa's loss has turned her and her relatives into activists against drunk driving. They have studied and researched all avenues of where alcohol is sold and how it gets in the hands of drivers.

"The thing I didn't know that I now know how easy it was to get alcohol, it like was everywhere," she said.

Everywhere, especially for Dana Pabst, the drunk driver who killed Arissa's family. Passengers say Pabst was inebriated on a U.S. Airways flight and was still served more alcohol by flight attendants. Because of the family's deaths, New Mexico's Governor, Bill Richardson, has banned the airline from serving alcohol while flying to and from his state. They must apply for the right to serve again.

After getting off the plane, Pabst also bought alcohol at a convenience store gas station. The state took its license away and the store went out of business.

Another improvement since the crash is the implementation of an easier way to report drunk drivers from a car phone. But these immediate fixes aren't enough for Arissa and her relatives. They want even more from the governor.

"He has been aggressive with DWI but we need him to look at the other end of the spectrum which is limiting supply access and then looking at advertising issues and allowing education of our youth," said Arissa's uncle, Gerry Collins.

Still, life goes on. After the tragedy, Arissa continues to find strength and love.

"I just go day by day with the people that I can talk to, that I could trust, that I love," she said. "You can find love in all places, even where you don't expect it, it's strong."

If you want to get in touch with Arissa and her family to learn more about their efforts against drunk driving, e-mail them at Gcollins77@comcast.net.