Greg Torell has had the same Christmas wish for the past seven years: to see his grandchildren open their presents and watch them play with their new toys. It’s an opportunity he will never have.
Torell, 51, saw his granddaughter, Elizabeth, and held her in his arms the night she was born, on June 12, 2007. Twenty minutes later his life changed forever. Torell was on his motorcycle on Hwy. 47 when he was broadsided by a drunken driver just blocks from his home in Cambridge, Minn. He lost his left arm and leg in the crash. He also was blinded.
For the past seven years, Torell has been housebound and uses a wheelchair to roll around a first-floor living room, kitchen and den.
The 21-year-old woman who hit him spent six months in jail, completed probation in 2013, and has moved on with life.
“That’s hard to swallow. Six years later, she is all done, and, if she stays clean, her life will go on just fine,” said Torell, who is talking publicly for the first time about the events on that fateful night. “I’m serving a life sentence. This is my whole life right here.”
As law enforcement officers from across the state wrap up a crackdown on drunken driving on Friday and Saturday nights, Torell hopes drivers will think twice before tipping a few back and getting behind the wheel. He knows that it’s not just deaths that authorities are trying to prevent, but long-lasting consequences that impaired driving can bring.
“In the past, the State Patrol and the DWI business was a pain in the ass if you like to drink and drive,” said Torell, who admits he has done it himself.
“After being on the other side of the fence, they are actually doing you a favor when they get you off the road,” he said. “People don’t look at it that way. They might save you from hitting somebody. I found out firsthand what it is like to be a victim, and ‘sorry’ just don’t cut it.”
More than 2,300 people were injured in alcohol-related crashes in 2013 according to Minnesota Department of Public Safety. Of those, 20 percent of victims had life-altering injuries, the department said.
“One poor choice can change a life forever,” said Donna Berger, of the Office of Traffic Safety.
“There is no rewind. You can’t turn back what has occurred.”
Officers from 400 agencies have been on the lookout for drunken drivers on weekends since Thanksgiving, an alert that continues through New Year’s. The enforcement effort is being paid for with a $600,000 grant from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Over the past four weekends, police have arrested 1,475 motorists for drunken driving, the Department of Public Safety said.
Last year, state records show that 25,179 drivers were cited for DWI. One in seven Minnesotans has a DWI offense on their driving record.
DWI sweeps have proved effective, Berger said. In the 1960s, more than 60 percent of crashes were alcohol-related. By last year, that number had declined in half to about 30 percent.
Still, the holidays remain a dangerous time on the roads. Motorists need to wear a seat belt, pay attention and plan for a sober ride, Berger said.
While many alcohol-related crashes involved a single vehicle that goes off the road or hits a tree, there are too many crashes involving multiple vehicles, and “unfortunately, too many times it is the innocent victim minding their own business who gets hurt.”
Torell was one of those victims.
He said he doesn’t remember a lot about the crash, other than lying in a ditch and being told that his left arm was missing. He was flown to North Memorial Medical Center and induced into a coma. It was two weeks later that he learned that he lost his arm and didn’t have a foot. He learned he could not see, either.
“I thought I was just all busted up and I’d get back to normal,” he recalled. When he overheard the doctor saying that he’d have to get fitted for prosthetics, he knew better.
Before the crash, Torell was a brick layer by day. He was an avid pheasant hunter and took his shorthaired pointer, Ben, to shows sponsored by the American Kennel Club.
He now spends his days playing fantasy sports and passing the time by listening to his “daytime buddies” on satellite radio.
Torell remains upbeat and says he does not hate the woman who hit him. He misses being able to drive and it pains him not be able to take granddaughter Elizabeth and his grandson, Wyatt, 4, fishing. Occasions like Christmas are difficult, too.
“The limbs are hard to take, but not having sight really is a bummer,” he said.
“The kids get such cool presents and I can’t see them play with them,” Torell said. “Oh, if I could just see them.”