By Donald Wittkowski
Some details about the crash that claimed the life of their teenage cousin about 20 years ago have faded over time, but there is one thing that Alan and Lisa Carpenter will never forget.
“He was a passenger with a drunken driver. That’s how he was killed,” Lisa Carpenter recalled of 16-year-old Ellis Mullen, who died in Greenville, Tenn.
Hoping to keep Mullen’s memory alive, the Carpenters and their daughters, Kelsey and Ashley, all of Leesburg, Cumberland County, joined with hundreds of other people Sunday for an annual event devoted to preventing more drunk-driving deaths.
Now in its seventh year, the HERO Walk in Ocean City is the main fundraiser for the John R. Elliott HERO Campaign for Designated Drivers, an organization named in honor of a Navy ensign from Egg Harbor Township who was killed by a drunk driver in 2000.
The Carpenters and about 200 other participants braved heavy rains Sunday to walk or run on the Ocean City Boardwalk in tribute to Elliott, Mullen and so many other victims of drunk drivers.
Lisa Carpenter paused for a moment while thinking of Mullen and said, “We didn’t expect to lose him so soon.”
The Carpenters said they received a call early in the morning about Mullen. At first, everyone assumed it would be bad news about Mullen’s father, who had been seriously ill at the time. Instead, they learned it was their young cousin who had died in a drunk-driving crash.
Alan Carpenter said in this age of Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing companies there is simply no reason why someone who is intoxicated should ever get behind the wheel.
“There are so many alternatives now. There’s no excuse for it,” he said.
Just like with Mullen, tragic circumstances also resulted in the death of John Elliott. The man who killed him had been arrested and charged with drunken driving just two hours before the crash, but was released to the custody of a friend, who let him get behind the wheel again.
The drunk driver then crashed into Elliott’s car, killing them both, on Route 40 in Salem County. The same stretch of road was renamed in John Elliott’s honor this year.
His death inspired his parents, William and Muriel Elliott, to form the HERO Campaign, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the use of designated drivers to take people home after they have been drinking.
The HERO acronym stands for Human Education Resources Officer, a top honor and prestigious mentoring position that was given to John Elliott during his senior year at the U.S. Naval Academy. His death on July 22, 2000, came only two months after he graduated from the academy.
The HERO Campaign has prompted more than 30,000 people to sign pledge cards to serve as designated drivers or to use one when alcohol is involved. Sunday’s walk included banners, posters, baseball caps and T-shirts that urged people to “Be a HERO” and take the pledge to become a designated driver.
William Elliott said the walk, along with related events, would raise an estimated $50,000 for the HERO Campaign, including donations from corporate sponsors.
A golf tournament organized by the Monmouth County family of Chad Horne, who was killed by a drunk driver in 2010, raised about $27,000, Elliott said.
Ocean City residents, students, teachers and community groups often play a major role in the HERO Walk through their fundraising efforts.
On Sunday, Ocean City Police Department’s PBA Local 61 donated $1,000 to the HERO Campaign. In accepting the donation, Elliott said he was grateful for the generous support of local law enforcement.
“Law enforcement is a key partner in our commitment to ending drunk driving,” he said. “I am always amazed at the overwhelming support of our community, and am very thankful to the Ocean City Police Department PBA Local 61 for this very generous donation.”
About 500 people had pre-registered to participate in the walk, but the dreary weather limited the turnout to around 200.
Jennifer Adamchak, John Elliott’s 37-year-old sister, said the family didn’t despair over the soggy skies. She explained that a number of important events in her brother’s life occurred on rainy days, including his speech as class president during his high school graduation.
“So, the rain actually brings some comfort to our family,” Adamchak said.
She noted that when her family was driving into Ocean City en route to the fund-raising walk, they felt John’s presence, partly because of the rain.
“When we were heading over the bridge, we felt he was with us. We all said, ‘Hi, John,’” she said.