Survivor may meet her friends' killer

Drunk driver claimed three lives

LEIGHTON KEITH
Last updated 05:00 28/11/2012
Crash survivor Erin Downs
ANDY JACKSON/Fairfax NZ
STILL RECOVERING: Erin Downs and her dog Tuddles, who has played a big part in her recovery from a horrific car crash, caused by a drunk driver, that claimed the lives of three close friends.

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Seven years after a horrific crash killed three of her friends, Erin Downs is considering meeting the drunk driver responsible for their deaths.

Miss Downs, who was aged 21 at the time, and Kurt Johnson, who was 23, escaped with serious injuries from the fiery crash on the Normanby rail overbridge in 2005.

Paul Cowper, 21, Aaron Hurley, 22, and Rochelle Meads, 22, died at the scene.

Drunk driver Raymond Hansen was behind the wheel of the car which slammed into the van the friends were travelling in, early on August 14.

Miss Downs has never spoken to the Taranaki Daily News about the crash but agreed to as part of the campaign against drink-driving.

She still has strong feelings towards Hansen.

"I hate him," she said. "But recently I have been thinking as part of the emotional rehabilitation of organising a meeting with him".

"I want to ask him questions and try to figure out for myself if he does have regret and sorrow for what he's done," she said.

"I want to sit down face to face with him so he can see how it affects my life everyday."

The five friends were returning to Hawera, from a 21st birthday in Tariki, when Hansen's car veered across the road and ploughed into the van they were travelling in.

"My most vivid memory would have been the headlights just before he hit us," Miss Downs, who suffered a broken pelvis and a burn above her right eye, said.

"Don't ask me how I did it but I kicked out the passenger's window and was crawling along the bridge railing. It just shows how strong adrenaline is, I just remember a whole lot of pain, I had no idea it was a broken bone, there was just tremendous pain through my middle section."

The impact of the crash caused the van to burst into flames and Miss Downs knew her friends were in trouble when she asked a passing motorist who was comforting her what had happened to them.

"The look on her face when I asked is everyone out and she said what do you mean? I knew that obviously they were not coming out."

Miss Downs and Mr Johnson were in a relationship at the time of the crash and were both sitting in the front - she often wonders what would have happened if she had been in another seat.

"If I had been in the back it might not have been the same outcome," she said.

"There probably wouldn't be a day go by without thinking about it and wishing it didn't happen."

Miss Downs, who spent two weeks in hospital and still suffers pain and discomfort from her injuries, said the horrific crash was etched in the community's psyche.

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"It rocked the whole town at the time. There is a number of people who still struggle with it, not just those directly affected."

Miss Downs said nobody should ever get behind the wheel after drinking.

"Don't do it and if somebody has been drinking take the keys off them, do anything you can to get the keys off them."

She said support from her family had helped her get through the ordeal.

"It was incredibly hard for them to see their "baby" going through something so horrific."

She said she faced daily reminders of the crash.

"I think about my friends every time I go north over the bridge. There are just so many reminders, it's crazy."

Hansen, who had a blood alcohol level of 114mg per 100 millilitres - the legal limit is 80mg - was sentenced to nine years in prison with a minimum non-parole period of five years, in October 2005.

He was released on parole in November 2011.

Both of Mr Johnson's legs were burned and broken, all of the bones in one of his feet were shattered, he suffered a broken hip, a fractured back and a ruptured kidney.

He remained conscious during the ordeal and remembers being trapped by his mangled legs in the burning van, ironically it was Hansen who pulled him free.

BY THE NUMBERS

In 2008 alcohol and drugs contributed to 31 per cent of fatal crashes and 21 per cent of serious injury crashes.

The crashes resulted in 119 deaths, 582 serious injuries and 1726 minor injuries.

It's estimated in 2008 the social cost of crashes involving alcohol or drugs was $841 million.

- Taranaki Daily News

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