Voices of Victims: Michelle Ramsey Hawkins

Two drunk drivers changed my family’s life forever.

On April 10, 2016, my three children, 15-year-old Kaylee, 6-year-old Khaiden, 4-year-old Samuel, and I went to a housewarming party for Khaiden’s godbrother. It was a sunny day near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, plenty warm for the kids to eat ice cream outside and for Khaiden to get a good look at the motorbike parked in the driveway.

Khaiden loved motorcycles, and before we left, the man who owned it promised him a ride the following weekend. We said goodbye, not imagining that for my two beautiful sons, next weekend would never come.

As we drove home along a dark highway, Samuel and Khaiden chattered away in the backseat, excited to be up past their bedtime. Their father, a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army, called on a flight home to let us know he’d be back in time to pick them up from school the next day.

The events of that night were already beginning to unfold. Up ahead, a trash compacter fell from the back of a pickup. The driver, who had two previous DUI convictions, was driving drunk that night, too. He didn’t bother to stop. A minute later, we crashed into the trash compacter. I did what I was supposed to do: I pulled off to the side of the road and got my children out of the car. I called law enforcement and then my parents, asking them to pick up the kids while I wanted for a tow truck.

I wanted my children to be safe.

Meanwhile, two good Samaritans, a father and his teenage son who’d heard the initial crash from their home, set up orange safety triangles to divert traffic around the wreck. As I dug into my wallet for my roadside assistance information, the boys began wrestling in the grass and Samuel complained that Khaiden was blowing spit bubbles at him. I was about to fuss, but for some reason, decided not to. I asked my daughter to help with her brothers, instructing the boys to hold hands in the grass, away from the road. It’s the last thing I remember before a second drunk driver—a man with a blood alcohol content nearly three times the legal limit—crashed through the safety triangles in his SUV.

When I came to, I was lying on the ground. I couldn’t move or see, but I could hear my daughter’s cries. And I immediately understood the absence of my sons’. They were gone.

Siblings who looked out for one another

My daughter, Kaylee, was 10 by the time my second child, Khaiden, came along. Kaylee was the first person to hold him, a fact she never forgot, and she adjusted quickly to life with a baby in the house. When Samuel—my bonus baby—arrived two years later, it was another story. Samuel was just a few days old when I went into the kitchen to fix a bottle. When I came back, I couldn’t find him.

Like all of my children, Samuel, 4, and Khaiden, 6, were incredibly close and looked out for one another.

Kaylee and Khaiden had set him out on the patio, car seat and all. I explained to them that they had to take care of one another. From then on, they did. Khaiden and Samuel called each other “brother.” Kaylee and the boys’ other sister, Haleigh, were “sister.” In the mornings, I sometimes found Samuel tucked at the bottom of his sister’s bed. They were incredibly close. While Kaylee, Khaiden and Sam shared a love of basketball, Haleigh simply loved hanging out with her brothers.

Khaiden and Samuel never met a stranger. It didn’t matter who you were. You were their cousin. Everyone was their cousin. They were blessed with real-life superheroes: Their dad, a staff sergeant who served in Afghanistan, and my father, a veteran who taught them how to fish and took them on road trips. Both boys attended Baton Rouge Foreign Language Academic Immersion program. After just three months, Khaiden spoke fluent Spanish. Unbeknownst to me, my 6-year-old joined the chess club in his afterschool program. We spent many weekends traveling to chess tournaments; I was so proud when Khaiden placed second in his age group in the entire state of Louisiana.

Samuel was my gentleman who always tucked in his shirt and wore a belt. He said glasses made him look cool like his dad. He loved painting and drawing. If you got a picture from Sam, you got a Picasso. He always had a wad of bubblegum in his mouth. He was the smallest and also the feistiest, trying to make himself louder and bigger. Sam wanted to play football— tackle football, not flag football. I told him he had to wait until he turned 5. I didn’t want anyone to hit my baby.

A tragic—and preventable—chain of events

Authorities reconstructed the events of that night: Just after 8 p.m. on April 10, 2016, the drunk driver who plowed through the safety triangles struck a car that then struck me before running off the road and slamming into my 3 children and the young man who’d come outside to help. In the ambulance, the EMT, an old high school friend, tried to keep me from hearing that my boys had died on the scene. I told him I already knew.

Kaylee learned the terrible truth from the TV news that played in her hospital room. The crash caused back injuries and nerve damage to her left foot. The emotional injuries went deeper; she never played basketball again. She couldn’t. Not without her brothers. The teenage neighbor, the good Samaritan, endured more than 20 surgeries. He couldn’t get his driver’s license when he turned 16 because he had fragments of his skull behind his eyelids. To this day, he is not the same. None of us are.

My boys weren’t nameless boys or statistics. They were Khaiden and Samuel. They were my sons. They had just started their lives. They had everything to live for. They were going to be somebody. Two drunk drivers robbed them of their futures and robbed me, even, of the closure I needed as a mother. The impact of the crash caused so much trauma that I never got the chance to hold them or touch them. Samuel’s face had to be reconstructed with clay; at the funeral, I could only look at their caskets from a distance.

While Sam never got that ride on a motorbike, the sheriff’s department sent out a whole fleet for his funeral—motorcycles for what seemed like miles. They escorted us everywhere we needed to go, and I was so grateful for that, and for the outpouring of love for my boys. A month after the funeral, I did what I had long promised my children, and what doctors told me I couldn’t do because my injuries were too severe. I walked across the stage to accept my master’s degree in social work, and I did it in heels. There was a walker waiting on the other side, but I did it. I’d missed a lot of games and recitals because I was in school. I owed it to Kaylee, Khaiden and Sam to see it through.

For two years, the man who killed my sons and injured three others walked free. For two years, I went to court and faced him and his family. Finally, on July 26, 2018, a judge sentenced him to 19 years in prison. The drunk driver who dropped the trash compactor and set into motion the events of that night is already out of jail.

Speaking out

Mothers Against Drunk Driving was there for my family at the beginning. MADD Victims Services Specialist Valerie Cox showed up every step of the way with support and information. Today, she is like a second mother to me. It is with her encouragement that I share our story.

On February 24, I was honored to testify on behalf of MADD before a U.S. House Transportation Subcommittee hearing on Examining Equity in Transportation Safety Enforcement. We called on federal lawmakers to support reforms that would address racial inequities in traffic safety enforcement while preserving the work by law enforcement to keep our roads safe from impaired drivers. We know it can be done. When traffic enforcement is primarily focused on hazardous driving behaviors, racial and ethnic disparities we currently see in traffic safety enforcement decrease significantly.

I often get asked how I do it. How I go on after the loss of my smart, beautiful sons. I went to therapy every single day. Without it, I would have lost my mind. I cried a lot. I prayed a lot. I finally decided I was tired of being called a victim. I got tired of people giving me the sad face, or rubbing my shoulders and my back every time I was around them. I got tired of feeling sad and depressed all the time.

I would also watch my daughter. “Mom,” she would say, “you’re not going to be sad today.” At first, I didn’t understand it. Now I do. I decided I’m going to be a survivor instead of a victim. I’m going to fight back. For Khaiden and Samuel.

If not me, then who else?

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