We don't just cover the North Bay. We live here.
Did You Know? In the first 10 days of the North Bay fire, nearly 1.5 million people used their mobile devices to visit our sites.
Already a subscriber?
Wow! You read a lot!
Reading enhances confidence, empathy, decision-making, and overall life satisfaction. Keep it up! Subscribe.
Already a subscriber?
Oops, you're out of free articles.
Until next month, you can always look over someone's shoulder at the coffee shop.
Already a subscriber?
We don't just cover the North Bay. We live here.
Did You Know? In the first 10 days of the North Bay fire, we posted 390 stories about the fire. And they were shared nearly 137,000 times.
Already a subscriber?
Supporting the community that supports us.
Obviously you value quality local journalism. Thank you.
Already a subscriber?
Oops, you're out of free articles.
We miss you already! (Subscriptions start at just 99 cents.)
Already a subscriber?

This column originally ran on March 17, 2016. We are re-publishing it online to remind our readers to be safe and look out for others as they celebrate St. Patrick's Day.

It’s been 15 years.

The usual thing to write at this point is that it’s hard to believe it has been that long. But that is not what is hard to believe. What is hard to believe is that it happened — and that Anna is still not with us.

It’s harder still to believe that someone didn’t intervene to stop it from happening in the first place.

People drink on St. Patrick’s Day. That is not a surprise. It’s also not a tragedy, in most situations. The tragedy in this case is that in the early hours of March 17, 2001, when a certain 25-year-old man from Williamsville, Ill. who had spent the evening bar-hopping with work friends and drinking sweet green drinks — something called a “Girl Scout cookie” — and was ready to go home, nobody helped him. Nobody stopped him.

On the contrary.

Within this particular group of managers from a Ford dealership in Springfield, there was one who, ostensibly, was a designated driver. But she said she wasn’t ready to leave.

So at that point someone drove this individual, Brandon Hurst, a married man with kids, to his car — a company car no less.

So how drunk was he at that moment? To give some perspective, when one has a blood alcohol level of between 0.10 and 0.125, roughly 25 percent above the legal limit, the person suffers significant impairment of motor coordination and good judgment. In other words, he or she starts to wobble and say and do dumb things.

When they hit 0.16 to 0.19 — more than twice the legal limit — they’re considered “sloppy drunk,” with a major loss of balance and blurred vision. Reach 0.20, and you now will probably need help standing or walking and are prone to hurting yourself when you fall, not that you feel it or even care. Blackouts are likely at this point. So is memory loss the next day.

When this man got into his new Ford Taurus on St. Patrick’s Day in 2001, he was 0.25, more than three times the legal limit. Still, the people around him allowed him and helped him to get in and drive away. So what happened next should not come as a surprise, I suppose.

In a matter of minutes, Hurst was traveling 90 to 100 mph in the wrong direction on Interstate 55 near Springfield when his car collided head-on with a Mazda Protégé carrying five sophomores from St. Olaf College in Minnesota. These students were headed to New Orleans to volunteer at an elementary school during spring break.

Three of them were killed almost immediately. My niece, Anna Bonde, my brother’s older daughter, was one of them. Two of the students suffered extensive injuries.

The driver survived. He pleaded guilty to reckless homicide, drunken driving and driving the wrong direction on a divided highway. He could have been sentenced to 28 years in prison, but he wasn’t. He got 10 — and was out in 8½ .

Life goes on for him. But it would be a lie to suggest that his was not among the many lives devastated by what happened at 1:06 a.m. at milepost 94 of I-55.

Among the lives that shattered that moment was that of Anna’s younger sister Megan, who, for the past 15 years, has had to go through every major life event without her faithful sibling. It was a vacancy that was symbolized by the empty chair she set aside at her wedding in Sonoma a year ago, a seat reserved for her sister.

The good news is that stories like this are on the decline. According to Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, fatalities and injuries have been cut in half since 1980. Still, on average, 27 people die every day in alcohol-related accidents. And there will be more stories like this today, which is considered one of the deadliest driving days of the year.

Am I being a buzzkill? I certainly hope so. I’m also hoping more people will be willing to speak bluntly about this.

One of the better examples was the recent Super Bowl Budweiser commercial by the “notoriously frank and uncensored” actress Helen Mirren. “I will sum it up like this,” she said. “If you drive drunk, you, simply put, are a short-sighted utterly useless, oxygen-wasting human form of pollution. A Darwin-award deserving, selfish coward. If your brain was donated to science, science would return it. So stop it.”

Well put. Now if we can just come up with a similar message for the “pillocks” who lack the common sense or courage to stop guys like Brandon Hurst from getting in their cars in the first place.

For those who do intervene, Mirren’s final thought is certainly fitting: “The friends and family of other drivers thank you.”

So do their uncles.

Paul Gullixson is editorial director for The Press Democrat. Email him at paul.gullixson@pressdemocrat.com.