5 decades later, hurt remains from teen killed by drunken driver

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Submitted / Laura Montagna was 17 years old when she was killed by a drunken driver at the intersection of Bay Avenue and Ninth Street on Dec. 15, 1965. Submitted / Laura Montagna was 17 years old when she was killed by a drunken driver at the intersection of Bay Avenue and Ninth Street on Dec. 15, 1965.

OCEAN CITY — Statistics show that the number of drunken driving deaths has decreased over the last several years, but for those who have lost a family member at the hands of an impaired driver, one death is still way too many.

For those left to mourn, the pain of losing a loved one never goes away.

Laura Montagna was 17 years old when she was killed by a drunken driver at the intersection of Bay Avenue and Ninth Street on Dec. 15, 1965. The petite, brown-eyed brunette was out with friends that evening and had just left a Ninth Street diner. She was killed around the corner from her 10th Street home.  

“It was a terrible, terrible tragedy and I don’t want any other family to have to suffer like mine has,” said Marla Montagna Tyce, the youngest of four Montagna sisters, including Ruth, who was 21, and Nancy, who was 19 at the time.

Ocean City Police Chief Chad Callahan said that since 1965, the laws have changed drastically. The legal limit was reduced from 1.0 to 0.8, he said. John’s Law, named after Ensign John Elliott requiring that drunken drivers not be released after being arrested, and the HERO Campaign to promote the use of a designated driver, has helped curb drunken driving incidents.

“I attribute that to education and awareness more than enforcement,” he said. “There has been a steady decline, and that’s a good thing. We have gone leaps and bounds with drunken driving, with awareness programs. Drivers are more responsible.”

In Ocean City, for instance, in 2009 there were about 80 drunken driving arrests. In 2012 there were 53. That is still too many, he said, but added that 30 fewer is going in the right direction. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently released statistics showing the decline is a national trend, he said. In addition, overall traffic deaths have also decreased.

Alcohol-related crashes kill 15,000 Americans each year and injure 25,000 more, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Commission.

“Almost everyone has been touched somehow by a death at the hands of a drunken driver,” he said.

Tyce was only 5 years old when her sister was killed and the impact changed the family forever.

“My parents had gone out of town that weekend, they went to visit relatives in Philadelphia,” she said. “Laura had gone to the diner with some friends and when they went to leave, they realized that the car they were in had a flat tire.”

Laura ended up in the front passenger’s seat of a car driven by a friend, Bobby Krockenberger. The car was headed south on Bay Avenue, and when it crossed Ninth Street, it collided with a car driven by John C. Koch of Fort Washington, Pa.

Koch, an executive with a company that manufactured metal valves, was staying with his wife at The Flanders Hotel. The couple had eaten dinner at a private club in Margate before proceeding to a night club in Somers Point. They were headed back to The Flanders when the collision occurred.

“It was foggy, the other car came flying off the bridge, through the red blinking light and hit the passenger side of Bobby’s car,” Tyce said. “Laura was thrown from the car.”

Her sister, she said, was just “out for the night with friends.” Tyce said it breaks her heart that her sister – then a senior at Ocean City High School – never had the opportunity to enjoy a winter dance or the prom.

“She was not there when her class graduated a few months later,” Tyce said. “It was Christmastime and everyone was busy shopping and preparing. My sister took business in high school, she would have graduated and gotten a job like my sisters and I did.”

Her parents, Ruth and Andrew Montagna, she said, never recovered from the shock of losing their daughter.

“I grew up in the shadow of my sister’s death,” she said.

A somber pall overtook the household.

“Parents are not supposed to bury children,” she said. “They hardly ever went out after that. My father was a commercial fisherman, he didn’t go out on the boat as much. My mother was a stay-at-home mom. When I went to school she worked in the school cafeteria and at Stainton’s, but she was withdrawn and very sad. They were never the same.

“I was raised by my sisters, they dressed me, took me to the movies,” she said. “My parents were numb.”

Her mother, she said, got involved with Mother’s Against Drunk Drivers, but her father kept his emotions close to the vest.

“He was Italian, Catholic, you didn’t show your emotions,” she said. “He was old school. My mother was just devastated.”

Trish Montagna Oliver, Laura’s first cousin, said her cousin’s death affected the whole family. She was 19 when Laura died.

“Laura was full of life, we always had a lot of fun,” Oliver said. “She loved to dance and we would go to the dances. 

“It was a big shock, right there in the center of town. It was so very sad,” she said. “She had everything to live for. It was devastating. None of us were allowed to ride in cars for a long time after that.

“It was just devastating for our family,” she said. “You just couldn’t believe that it happened. It was hard for my aunt and uncle.

“They were innocent kids in a car, doing nothing wrong, but because someone was drunk, Laura lost her life.”

It happened 47 years ago, but Oliver said it could have been yesterday.
“You don’t forget, ever,” she said. “Back then, it was more acceptable to drink and drive, no one talked about a designated driver. There was no stigma and no punishment. This guy apparently got away with it many times before, but this time he killed someone, and it has affected all of us. Something like that changes everybody’s life forever.”

If the laws in 1965 had been as stringent as the laws in 2012, her cousin would be alive, Oliver said.

Callahan said efforts to reach the younger generation have paid off.

“It’s hitting home, they can lose their license for three to seven months. They face an insurance surcharge and stiff fines. They don’t want that to happen. You see the bars working with cab companies, there’s no reason to drink and drive.

“We’ve done a lot to educate people, and we’ve reconfigured roads, like West Avenue and placed four-way stop signs at intersections. The new bridge being a divided highway will really help. We won’t have high speed head-on collisions. We had about 740 accidents in 2008 and last year it went to about 595. That’s a big improvement.”

Callahan said safer conditions mean fewer accidents in general, and fewer drunken driving tragedies.

“Our job as police officers is to try to enforce laws so that we don’t have tragedies,” he said. “We would much rather educate than write tickets, and educate than see one more person die at the hands of a drunken driver.”

Tyce, whose husband Clay is an Ocean City police officer, said her children, Kara, 30, and Ryan, 27, learned early on that if they were drinking they were never to get behind the wheel.

“I would tell them, ‘I don’t care what time it is you call me or you call a cab,’” she said. “I instituted the fear of God in them. I said my family cannot endure another tragedy.

“I hope people will learn from this. It happens, and when it happens to you, it changes everything,” she said. “Life is never the same again when you lose a loved one, needlessly, to a drunken driver.” 

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