Final lesson for grads: Don't drink and drive
Liana Lien of Carlos had talked to her brother, Landon, wishing him a happy 19th birthday. When she asked if he had plans, he said he was going carp spearing and hanging out with friends.
Liana, knowing that drinking may be involved, told him to have fun but to be safe. He told her, "Don't worry. I'll always be safe."
It turned out to be their last conversation.
She found out early the next morning, May 24, 2013, that Landon had been killed in a crash.
He was a passenger in a Chevy Silverado driven by an 18-year-old friend who didn't have a license and was under the influence of alcohol and marijuana.
Last Wednesday, for the first time, Liana Lien shared her personal story of what she and her family went through. Her audience was juniors and seniors at Osakis High School. The venue was Operation Graduation — an effort the school holds every few years to make students aware of the very real dangers of drunken driving and not wearing seat belts.
Members of the Osakis police and fire departments, along with first responders, helped organize the event and were at the presentation. The crash affected all who responded to the the scene on Interstate 94.
At times holding back tears, Liana described in vivid detail what happened to her brother. Her goal: Convincing young people that they're not invincible, that they put their lives at risk when they drive drunk or get into a vehicle driven by someone who is impaired.
"Please, don't let this be you," she said. "Please, let his story be a lesson for you and let something good come out of his death."
Liana, a 2009 graduate of Alexandria, lived a normal life on her family's farm in Carlos and had just graduated from college.
The morning after the crash, Liana woke up unusually early, about 5 a.m., checked her phone messages and found out that her mother had called several times. When she called her back, her mother gave her the crushing news: Her brother was in an accident and was killed.
She doesn't remember the exact words her mother used, but she does remember how she reacted.
"'No! No! No!' — that was all that came out of my mouth," Liana said.
She then made the longest car ride of her life — to see her deceased brother.
"It didn't feel real," she said. Her mind couldn't grasp the idea that there would be no more hugs, no more laughs, no more shared moments with her "pesky" little brother.
"It was as if the worst nightmare I'd ever imagined came to life," she said.
Liana couldn't believe this was happening to her family. Fatal crashes happened to other people in other places or were on the news — "never to us," she said.
The reality hit home when she went to the hospital and through a partially open door, saw her brother's feet poking out of a sheet on a tall metal cart.
"I fell to the ground, screaming," she said, adding that she didn't want to go into the room because maybe not seeing him wouldn't make it real.
But she did go in and she saw his injuries. She held his hand and stared into his face because she never wanted to forget what he looked like. She even opened his eyelids to see his deep green eyes one last time.
Then, she said, the body of her "sweet brother" was whisked away so that his body parts could be donated to help others.
Later, she learned the details of what happened.
Landon and a friend had been to a party in Sauk Centre, celebrating the graduating seniors and Landon's birthday. Liana said that Landon and others at the party made a choice to drink that night.
When Landon and his friend left in Landon's Silverado to go to Alexandria, three others at the party checked to make sure that they were wearing seat belts and they were, although sometime later, Landon became unbuckled.
Shortly after 2 a.m. on a rain-slicked Interstate I-94 near Osakis, Landon's friend tried to pass a semi-truck but merged too soon and sideswiped the semi. The Silverado rolled violently into the ditch, crumpling like a tin can, Liana said. The rollover was so intense that when Landon was ejected from the vehicle, his aorta separated from his heart and he died instantly.
The 19-year-old who loved his family, friends, hunting, spearing and the outdoors never had the chance of fulfilling his dreams of graduating from college, becoming a gunsmith and business owner, traveling to Australia and starting a family of his own.
The driver, Jacob Dale of Alexandria, was wearing a seatbelt and escaped serious injuries. He had a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.14 more than three and a half hours after the crash. He was later charged with three felonies and sentenced to 41 months in prison.
Since the crash, Liana said she's gone through immense sadness and still misses Landon deeply. She wrapped up her speech by asking the students if any of them had lost a sibling in a crash. No hands went up.
Then she asked if any had lost a family member or other loved one, and a few hands went up.
Then she asked if any had known others who had lost someone in a crash and practically everyone raised their hand.
She said that should serve as a reminder that fatal crashes can happen to them, and that if they ever find themselves in a situation where there isn't a safe ride home, there is always someone they can call.
Kyle Kostrzewski, a teacher and firefighter, thanked Liana for sharing her story and said that nobody ever thinks that a fatal crash could happen to them. He told the students, "If even one person in this room gets the message, it's a benefit."