SPOTSWOOD, NJ - Dresses, hair, makeup, nails and the upcoming weekend may have been on the minds of juniors and seniors on the morning of Friday, May 26 in anticipation of this evening's prom at Ariana's Grand in Woodbridge. However, the administration had a more sobering message in store when the upperclassmen were called into the school's cafetorium to hear a presentation by Maria Esteves.
Prior to prom and the upcoming graduation season, Principal Thomas Calder and his administration hold a drunk-driving program for juniors and seniors in conjunction with the Spotswood Police Department. They have been doing so for the past 10 years.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 9,967 deaths occurred from drunk driving incidents in 2014. In 2012, 1,168 children 14 years of age or younger died in traffic related accidents. A third of those fatalities involved alcohol.
"The purpose of this assembly is to make you think," Calder said as he addressed the upperclassmen. "One bad decision can change your life. My focus is that you make good decisions, not just today (prom night), but from this point on. We want you to think about the message she (Esteves) has."
On April 20, 1991, Esteves' 8-year-old daughter was struck by a drunk driver. The third-grader was walking to the store with her uncle and two cousins. They were only minutes away from her home when they proceeded to cross the intersection of Second Street and Clark Place in Elizabeth. The pain of losing Rosie remains as fresh as the day she lost her young daughter. That fact was clear as Esteves shared personal and poignant details of the final day in her child's life as well as the tragic aftermath.
Esteves, now an advocate for victims in the Union County Prosecutor's Office, began the program with a five minute YouTube video set to REM's "Everybody Hurts." The short video depicted the pain and suffering that a drunk driver leaves behind. Afterwards, Esteves showed the students a photograph of Rosie. She spoke about how the girl scout loved school and had beautiful handwriting. Her last words to her daughter on that Saturday afternoon as she walked out of the house with her uncle and cousins were, "Be careful."
The store was two and a half blocks away. Yet, the four family members never made it that far. Moments later a knock at the door would alert Esteves to the tragic event that would forever alter her life and that of her family.
Esteves' uncle would die in route to the hospital. When Esteves and her husband arrived at the emergency room, they were told the devastating news that Rosie would not survive. Despite being informed that Rosie was brain dead, Esteves still held out hope that the child would somehow live. Early the next morning, the family would make the agonizing decision to terminate life support.
The driver who hit Rosie and her family members had a blood alcohol level of .10. He was legally intoxicated at the time of the accident. Yet, Esteves doesn't feel that the man that took her daughter away from her was a "bad man." On the contrary, she told the students that he was a parent just like her. A parent who had made a "bad decision."
The driver was 42 at the time of the accident and the father of four children. His oldest was getting married and he was out on that fateful afternoon in search of a place to hold his son's bachelor party. At each of the three restaurants he'd stopped at, the driver consumed alcohol. He was heading for the fourth when he hit Rosie, her uncle and cousins as they crossed the intersection, sending them flying into the air.
The driver was arrested the evening of the crash. However, it would take two years before the case would come to trial. He would be sentenced to seven years each in the deaths of Rosie and her uncle with the sentence to run concurrently. In the end, the driver served four years and eight months before being released.
Rosie's cousin, ten at the time of the accident would sit in the witness box and relive the details of the accident that took her cousin, grandfather and seriously injured herself and her sister. Despite living in the apartment underneath, Esteves could never bring herself to ask the child about the accident, hearing her retell it that day in court for the first time.
Esteves spoke at the driver's sentencing hearing. The driver did not. He never uttered the words Esteves desperately wanted to hear; that he was sorry for what he'd done.
Many students were visibly shaken by Esteves' story. As she spoke, there was complete silence in the cafetorium. Some shifted uncomfortably in their seats, staring at the ground while others openly cried.
"I do this in her memory," Esteves said in an interview before her presentation. "You live with the loss. Nothing ever fills it."
In a small bag Esteves carries Rosie's picture along with newspaper clippings of horrific drunk driving cases as well as teenage binge-drinking deaths that have occurred since 1991.
"It's still happening," she said.
In her parting words to the students, Esteves wished them well on their journey and hoped they heard her message that alcohol, drugs, speeding, cell phones, distracted driving and poor choices can have dramatic and far-reaching consequences. She urged them not to take chances with their lives and that of others.
Another piece in Esteves' bag is a poem she wrote in her daughter's memory. Rosie's smiling picture is in the corner. She's wearing the dress she was buried in. It was one of her favorites. The poem ends with these words:
"I didn't get to live. I died and did nothing wrong. Alcohol is the cause of many tears."