Sarah D: Update-Faces behind a fatality

Mary Quinn July 14, 1979-Dec. 30, 1998

Teenage drivers are four times more likely to crash than older drivers. The main reason: They underestimate or do not recognize hazardous situations. Click here to find out the facts about young drivers. It also gives you ideas on how to talk to them about it.

If you have a teenage driver in your home, please have them read the following article I wrote about my sister's death. Heck, assign it as punishment the next time your young driver acts up. Just please, help get the word out that the risks are not worth it.


"In Clark County, a car loses control on a slick roadway, hits another car nearly head on. The accident killed 21-year-old Mary Quinn from Monroe City, Missouri."

That's the story my co-worker read on December 30, 1998. That was the news that changed my life.

Mary Quinn is/was my sister. She died during a blizzard, riding in a car on Highway 61 near the Lewis County line. Three of her friends were hurt, one lingered in a coma for weeks before she learned my sister was dead.

This is my story of the people behind the story; the pain that comes from that phone call telling you a loved one has died. It's a tale of warning, especially to young drivers.

The last person to talk to Mary that day was my brother Joe. Mary called home from a convenience store in Kahoka. She and her friends were returning from a skiing trip in Iowa. Mary described the conditions to Joe. She talked about how terrible the two-lane highway was. She said they kept slipping and sliding and could only creep the car through the blizzard. Joe told her to stay put. He said it wasn't worth the risk. Mary said she needed to get home, she had to report to work as a hospice nurse. Joe begged her to stay. She felt like her patients needed her. Those patients who were dying in hospice care.

Mary's last words to Joe: "I love you!" That was always the last thing she said to us. Those were her final words to me when I last saw her five days before, on Christmas day. I'm so glad that's how we ended things. But the ending came way, way too soon.

I've never been the person who indulges in the phrase, "If only..." In the end, it just is what it is, and there's no changing the outcome. But I can't help but think that Mary didn't have to die. She had no business being out on the roads during a blizzard. And neither do I. Neither do you. As a disclaimer, I want everyone to know that the staff here at KHQA is practicing what we preach during Winter Storm 2011. We slept in a hotel a block away. Some of us slept at the station. Some of us didn't sleep at all. Every emergency official we talk to is telling us to stay off the roads. We are. We think you should too. We just want everyone be safe. And we certainly don't want you to get that phone call that will forever change your life.

"It's by far the worst part of what we do, without a doubt," Missouri State Trooper Brent Bernhardt told me. Can you imagine doing what he does? Knocking on a door with what's officially called the "death notification." What it really amounts to is delivering the crushing news to a mom or dad, husband or wife, even to a child, that a person they love more than anything is dead.

To Bernhardt, a traffic fatality is not a number to be tallied at the end of the year. By the way, the 2010 count was 821 fatalities in Missouri. But as Bernhardt says, "To a lot of people, it's a number, but to us it's a real person. We know the hurt behind the numbers. We know that for every death that happens on the highway, hundreds even thousands of people are affected."

As someone affected by a by a highway fatality, I know that what Bernhardt says is absolutely true. Having lived through my sister's death, I can tell you that when I read a story about a fatal accident on the air, I know I've delivered news that is going to cause a lot of people pain. I feel that hurt for the families and friends left behind. Your loss is not a number to me, it's not just a news story. It's my story too.

I'm going to get nostalgic now. I want to give you a picture of my sister, Mary Quinn. It's important to me that she is not a faceless fatality. Maybe you don't want to know about these personal details of my sister's life. And that's OK. Really it is. If you choose to stop reading now, please just take away the message that your life is too valuable to throw away with needless chances. Some of you will not be able to avoid travel. Most of you can. Work can live without you for a day or two. Your friends and family do not want to give you up for a lifetime.

You see Mary's high school picture posted here. That picture was taken about 16 years ago, but I think you can tell she was a stunning girl. I'll always remember that smile. I wonder if you can see through her smile how much she loved life. She was just one of the funnest people you could know. Life around Mary was a laugh a minute. She made the most of her 21 years on earth. She brought joy to the lives of people who knew her.

Mary was a senior at Truman University in Kirksville at the time of her death. She was just months away from graduating with her nursing degree. She was working with a hospice program and she was perfect for the job. She was kind and gentle in caring for the people who were on the verge of death. She was a comfort to them until the end. As it turned out, some of her patients at death's door outlived her.

Truman presented our family with a posthumous nursing degree for Mary. It was the first time in the University's history they awarded a posthumous degree. It meant a lot to us. So did the turnout for her memorial. Because she died over Christmas break, many of her friends at school didn't know of her accident until they came back to campus in January. Her friends organized a mass and a candlelight vigil. They needed to grieve, needed the closure.

Mary was killed on Highway 61, back when it was a two-lane road. Just about an hour after her accident, not far up the road, a father lost of control of his van and broadsided a semi. His three young sons were killed. Back then, we called Highway 61 death alley. I'm so proud of my dad, who's a Missouri state representative. He takes his fight for four-lane roads to the legislature. He gives a voice to families who lost loved ones.

When I look back on those days following Mary's death, it's a jumble of emotions. My twin daughters were just two weeks old. The joy, the exhaustion, the hormones of new motherhood combined with the devastating grief...I was just a mess. But Lord what a blessing those babies were. Whenever one of my family was reeling with the grief, they'd hold a baby close to their chest and hang on for dear life.

When my parents went to clean out Mary's dorm room, they found a journal. Mostly it was a collection of quotes she'd copied, things that struck her as memorable.

My favorites: "To the world, you might be one person, but to one person you might be the world." Also, "When someone you love becomes a memory, that memory becomes a treasure."

You are treasured, deeply loved, you touch the lives of people in ways you never imagine. Please, please don't take chances with your life.

Take care,