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Vigil honors those in South Florida killed by drunken drivers

Yizrel Melendez (center), 28, comforts her niece, Yarielis Melendez, 7, during a Miami-Mothers Against Drunk Driving candlelight vigil on Thursday, Nov. 19, in Coral Gables, Fla. Yizrel Melendez's aunt (left), Daymarie Melendez, lost her daughter, Krystine Bermudez, to a drunk driver. She was 20.
Yizrel Melendez (center), 28, comforts her niece, Yarielis Melendez, 7, during a Miami-Mothers Against Drunk Driving candlelight vigil on Thursday, Nov. 19, in Coral Gables, Fla. Yizrel Melendez's aunt (left), Daymarie Melendez, lost her daughter, Krystine Bermudez, to a drunk driver. She was 20. Miami Herald

It took several years for John Witty to muster up the strength to attend a yearly vigil for those lost to drunken driving.

He likened losing his 16-year-old daughter Helen Marie to losing a limb.

“It’s something you never get over,” he said. “But you learn how to live with it.”

Helen Marie was killed on June 1, 2000, as she skated in a bike path near her Pinecrest home. Carla Wagner, 17, was drunk on tequila shots and high after smoking marijuana when she sped in her Audi and slammed into Helen Marie.

Now, 15 years after the crash that took his daughter, Witty stood before a room full of people who suffered similar losses and offered them strength.

“I couldn’t attend this vigil for a number of years,” he said. “It was just too much for me to bear. Now I see it as a way to honor Helen Marie.”

The MADD — Mother’s Against Drunk Driving — Celebration of Life and Love is a yearly memorial held just before the holiday season to help families cope with their loss. Through songs, prayers, candles and stories, people remember those who have been killed. Story boards in the back show smiling babies, teens in caps and gowns, brides in wedding dresses and police officers in uniform.

For Christian Saldana, attending the memorial is healing. He lost is 17-year-old sister on April 13, 2014, when she and two others were standing on the side of the road to help someone in Southwest Miami-Dade.

Saldana teared up as he spoke about his only sister.

“She was only trying to help,” he said. “We need to get the message out there that there are alternatives to driving drunk.”

MADD Executive Director Janet Mondshein said that 10,000 people die yearly because of drunken drivers.

The yearly memorial is meant to give families hope and show support.

Each chair had a candle, a program and a pack of tissues.

After several speeches, including Witty’s, attendees lit candles and said their loved ones’ names.

Among those remembered: Kaely Camacho, 13, who was killed in April 2013; Irina Reinoso, 22, who was killed in August 2013; and Haywood Johnson, 49, who was killed in September 2013.

Johnson’s sister Angelica Green said MADD has helped her family cope with the loss of her brother.

“It’s like you have another family,” she said. “We all know what each other has gone through and we can support each other.”

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