I have heard, read and reported on a lot of sad stories in the 44 years I have been a newspaperman, but one that occurred recently and is still unfolding is perhaps the saddest I have ever encountered.
On Feb. 3 a group of students from Moore High School were running in a group in the vicinity of the school.
All were track athletes, out for an afternoon workout, running safely on the sidewalk, or so they thought.
Suddenly a vehicle left the roadway and plowed into the group of young people, striking several before speeding away.
One of the students, senior Rachel Freeman, died instantly. Five others were transported to local hospitals.
The next day another student, sophomore Yuridia Martinez, succumbed to her injuries.
As this story is being published, another injured runner, senior Kolby Crum, died Saturday at OU Medical Center.
The accident was horrific. According to the police report the driver, 57-year-old Max Townsend, was driving his pickup at 78 miles per hour, going east in the westbound lanes of Moore’s Main Street when he struck the rear of a parked vehicle.
That was when his pickup jumped the curb onto the sidewalk, where it plowed into the Moore students. He kept going after the accident, driving through a front yard on Main, then across South Morgan drive, where he first hit a mailbox, then a parked car, which was pushed into another car. Townsend’s pickup then came to a stop.
Two Moore students took the keys out of Townsend’s truck. He exited the vehicle and sat on the curb and waited for police.
Townsend, who had a history of run-ins with the law, was apparently intoxicated.
But this is where the story takes an even more tragic turn, if that is possible.
As he sat outside his ruined vehicle, waiting to be arrested, Townsend kept repeating “I lost my son, I lost my son.”
Townsend’s 29-year-old son Cody, it turns out, had been killed in a crash in Moore just the day before. The elder Townsend had allegedly been drinking all day since leaving his job in Muskogee at about 2 a.m. Feb. 3. He reportedly was driving to his late son’s home near Moore High School when the accident happened.
Let’s be clear, there is no excuse for what Townsend did. He deserves to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and to spend a long time, if not the rest of his life, in prison.
But it’s possible to at least begin to understand the pain he was feeling when he allegedly decided to drown his sorrows with alcohol.
How doubly tragic, then, that his reaction to suffering the worst pain a parent can ever experience, the loss of a child, wound up causing that very same pain for three other sets of parents.
It would be easy to label Townsend a monster in the wake of his actions. But he didn’t set out to kill anybody, he allegedly simply fell back on the only coping mechanism at his disposal — booze.
In my youth I drove drunk on numerous occasions, in various states of intoxication ranging from a mild buzz to right on the verge of passing out. I didn’t think much about it at the time. I could handle it, I thought.
I didn’t think about the innocent lives I was putting at risk, I thought only about myself. All it would have taken was one instant of distraction and inattention, one car to suddenly stop short in front of me, one vehicle to change lanes at just the wrong time, and that driver with a couple of deaths on his head could have been me.
Driving under the influence of any mind-altering substance is selfish, stupid and incredibly dangerous.
Every day in this country 29 people die in motor vehicle crashes involving a drunk driver, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That is one drunken-driving death every 50 minutes. Between 2003 and 2012 in Oklahoma there were 2,205 traffic fatalities involving a drunken driver.
A man’s 29-year-old son dies one day in a traffic accident, a sad enough tale in itself.
Then the next day two sets of parents send their daughters to school on an ordinary Monday and never see them alive again, while a third set of parents is coping with the death of their son.
It’s enough to make you weep just thinking about it.
So how should we regard Max Townsend, with hatred and scorn, there is certainly enough reason for that given his actions, or with pity and a modicum of compassion? Remember the Bible tells us to forgive. That is a particularly hard ask in this case, but that is what we are called upon to do.
Impaired driving is a scourge that is not abating in this country. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, some 1.5 million Americans are arrested annually for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
That means one in every 121 licensed drivers was arrested last year for drunk driving. And those are just the ones that were caught.
If you get behind the wheel of a vehicle after having a few drinks or indulging in your favorite mind-altering drug, stop it before you kill somebody.
If you’re with a friend or relative who is impaired and wants to drive home, take their keys and make sure they do not drive until they have sobered up.
They will whine and gripe and protest that they are fine, they can handle it. They can’t. They are a rolling time bomb, a cocked gun, a lit fuse.
I’m sure Max Townsend thought he could handle it, too.
Mullin is an award-winning writer and columnist who retired in 2017 after 41 years with the News & Eagle. Email him at email@example.com or write him in care of the Enid News & Eagle at PO Box 1192, Enid, OK, 73702.