Written by Christy Hinko: firstname.lastname@example.org Friday, 20 April 2012 00:00
Following a bagpipe presentation by Sergeant Todd Bennett of the Southampton Town Police Department, a brief invocation was given by Bishop Robert W. Harris and generous welcomes from MADD Victim Advocate and event chairwoman Margaret Rebholz and Senior Development Officer Rori Fleshel.
“MADD’s Campaign to Eliminate Drunk Driving endorses and encourages high-visibility law enforcement and continuing diligence on the part of our police, prosecutors and probation professionals,” said Margaret Rebholz, chairperson for the event. “This annual event is our way of saying thanks to those who dedicate their lives to this important work.”
Special guest speaker Michael Tangney, commissioner of the City of Long Beach Police Department, was in attendance to speak of his determination with law enforcement and his commitment to MADD to eliminate drunk driving. Tangney is the great-uncle of Katie Flynn, 7, the young flower girl from Long Beach who was killed in 2005 with limousine chauffeur driver, Stanley Rabinowitz, 59, of Farmingdale, when Martin R. Heidgen, 25, of Valley Stream crashed head-on into the wedding limousine they were riding in. Heidgen drove for more than two miles on the wrong side of the Meadowbrook Parkway. His blood alcohol level was recorded at .28, more than three times the legal limit.
Tangney began sharing the wonderful details of his niece’s wedding: what a great time everyone was having, the view of a nearby fireworks display the wedding guests got to enjoy, and how it was tradition for the littlest kids to dance on his feet.
After the reception, the caravan of wedding party guests and family began their trip back home, down the Meadowbrook Parkway. “We rented two limousines; we were doing everything that could possibly be done right, and it went horribly wrong,” said Tangney. He explained that after a brief separation from the cars traveling together, he rejoined shortly behind them on the parkway. He recalls seeing the horrific accident as he approached, thinking it was “some other family.” He parked his car, instructed his wife to call 911 and he went over to the wreckage. He saw Rabinowitz, the driver, completely crushed by the engine.
“I went to the back of the limousine and opened the door and there I saw my family,” Tangney shared, about finding his brother, nephew, sister-in-law, and nieces. He began to extract his family one by one, until he finally moved Jennifer, Katie’s mother. It was then that Jennifer reached down and picked up Katie’s severed head. Nothing else mattered. While Tangney continued to work triage at the scene, he said Jennifer went to the side of the road with her seven-year-old daughter’s head. “When Neil [Katie’s father] found out that Katie was dead, with his broken back and bruised heart he crawled to the back of the limousine before he collapsed,” Tangney told the hushed audience. Neil was transported in the first ambulance to South Nassau Community Hospital. The Freeport Fire Department then removed the roof of the limo and continued removing the mangled victims. Each of them transported to a hospital by the next available arriving ambulance. Tangney’s brother, Chris took on eight pints of blood within the first 30 minutes at the hospital. Chris was placed in a medically induced coma for more than two weeks.
The ambulance that had taken Neil to the hospital had returned, ready to take another transport. Jennifer was still sitting on the side of the road. Tangney remembers trying to usher her into the waiting ambulance, it was cold, and damp and she needed medical attention herself.
He said Jennifer spoke calmly, “Uncle Michael, I am not leaving; I am staying here with Katie,” while she still cradled her daughter’s head. She finally agreed to get into the ambulance. A Nassau County police officer assigned to the scene stood watch, while respecting her request to be alone with her daughter. Tangney reminded Jennifer that her 5-year-old daughter, Grace, who had been transported earlier, was at the hospital and needed someone to be with her. There was no next-of-kin to be with little Grace while she was being treated in the emergency room; her father was now in surgery, her grandparents were each now in surgeries in separate hospitals. Jennifer agreed, she needed to get to Grace, but she refused to leave Katie.
Tangney said when they arrived at the medical center at 3 a.m., where Grace was being treated; he opened the back of the ambulance. Tangney said when he told Jennifer it was time to go inside to take care of Grace. “At that time she turned Katie around, kissed her goodbye and handed her to me,” Tangney said solemnly, “I am standing in the heliport area of the emergency room of Nassau County Medical Center holding my niece’s head.”
“My family had limousines, a plan, we did right…while one monster decided that drinking and driving was OK,” Tangney said pointedly. For three weeks, his family waited to bury Katie’s body because her parents and grandparents were all in serious condition at area hospitals and would not have been able to attend her funeral.
Tangney said he began to see Heidgen as a “monster” when the trial began and progressed, through a letter obtained that he sent to a friend from jail, and his attempt to tamper with evidence during the trial to avoid taking responsibility.
“Why did MADD ask me to tell this horrific story? I don’t enjoy it, but we have to stop it,” Tangney said. He said in 2011, Long Beach had 100 DWI arrests, and over the 2012 St. Patrick’s Day weekend alone the city had six drunk driving arrests. He asserted, “It’s an epidemic; it has to stop and there’s only one way, everyone has to chip in.” He said it’s the job of every officer on duty to “step up to the plate and pull them [drunk drivers] over.” He said in general, “When you are at the party, it’s going to be really uncomfortable to say, say it anyway, ‘You shouldn’t drive,’ if someone had said that to [Martin Heidgen] that night, Katie would still be here today.”
In February 2007, Heidgen was sentenced to 18 years to life. In January 2011 Heidgen and his lawyer filed to have the ruling appealed. The appeal was overruled in September.
More than 72 law enforcement professionals, islandwide, were among those honored at the event. Stop DWI officials Chris Mistron and Douglas Death presented the awards. Some of the area honorees included Elaine Thibault of the Nassau County Probation Department, the Floral Park Police Department (FPPD) and FPPD Officer Stephan Drenckhahn, Garden City Police Officer Stephen Oswald, the Glen Cove Police Department (GCPD) and GCPD Officer Peter Trubish, Old Westbury Police Officers Kenneth Glass and Joseph Miloscia, County Precinct Officers John Schmitt, Michael Komarnicki, Ryan McGauley, George Pribyl, Richard Piscitelli, Thomas Judge and Frank Parente. Highway Patrol Officer Samuel Ferrandino, Central Testing Section Officers Julian Baietto, John Brigandi, Raymond Collins and Carl Gill were also honored along with ADAs Michael Buschwack, Everett Witherell and Michelle Schmitz.
The luncheon was hosted gratis by Chateau La Mer in Lindenhurst and was also attended by many local businesses in support of MADD’s mission including State Farm, TD Bank, Suffolk County Police Benevolent Association and BBA Photography.
MADD Long Island, established in 1982, serves Nassau and Suffolk Counties from its chapter office in Huntington Station. The mission is to eliminate drunk driving, to assist the victims of this violent crime and to prevent underage drinking. For additional information about MADD Long Island, visit www.longislandmadd.org or call (631) 547-6233.