FLUSHING, NY (PIX11)—Courtney Rey Ahlsen of Greenlawn, Long Island drove her pick-up truck to the eastbound service road of the Long Island Expressway in Flushing, Queens Monday. She parked near 150th Street and carried a homemade poster to the fence. It read, "In Memory of John Rey .Drive Safely." John Rey was her father, and a year ago, as the July 4th weekend was ending, a "wrong way" drunk driver smashed into John Rey's airport shuttle van at this site. Rey slid out of the van right before it exploded.
The 64-year-old Rey suffered catastrophic injuries, but he battled for his life for sixteen days at New York Hospital-Flushing. His older daughter, Colleen Rey Cassar, recalled, "It was a crucifixion. His abdomen was open, his chest was crushed, his leg was destroyed." Three days after doctors amputated Rey's right leg because of severe infection, he died.
The 30-year-old driver who was speeding in his Mercedes at 80 miles per hour, going the wrong way, was sentenced back in March to 3 ½ to 10 ½ years in prison."He is, you know, in a wheelchair," Courtney Ahlsen said of Dave Richards. "And he'll have difficulty functioning doing everyday tasks. And he'll be reminded of what he did .every, single day."
The sisters have been proactive in the last year, trying to get a law passed in their father's name. John Rey's bill, which recently passed in the state Senate, would address safety concerns at "exit ramps" near major highways. Many of these ramps are plastered with signs that say "Wrong Way" and "Do Not Enter"-- but they're not enough to stop drunk drivers with impaired brain function. "The best thing we'd like is spikes," Colleen Cassar said Monday, "and they'll puncture your tires. That would be the best preventive measure." She said rental car agencies have special attachments on the road, so customers can't return vehicles while driving the wrong way. "If we could get that law passed in my dad's name," Cassar said, "it would be the best memorial for him,"Courtney Ahlsen said.
After her father's accident at least 19 more "wrong way" crashes happened in the metro area before year's end, including one that killed a New York City police officer on his way home from work.
Cassar drove his "Super Shuttle" airport van for more than twenty years, often leaving his Suffolk County home at 2 am, so he could shuttle passengers to and from the city's main airports, JFK and LaGuardia. "After his passing, I got letters and e-mails from complete strangers," Colleen Cassar remembered, "saying they felt safe in his van, and he knew the roads better than anyone."
Colleen Cassar planted a tribute to her dad in her garden on Father's day, in the shape of a giant heart. She also placed a replica of a brick with Rey's name at Citifield, in memory of the avid Mets fan. "He drove past Citifield everyday of his life," Cassar recalled.
Her sister, Courtney, has a tattoo now on her own "driving" leg (the same one her father had amputated), with her dad's van number--928--inked inside a heart. And she takes great comfort from a photo that was given to her, taken right after the accident, showing her father lying on the highway, waiting for medical help. A gray-haired stranger holds John Rey's hand. "I found much comfort in seeing that picture; that picture helped me heal," Courtney Ahlsen told PIX 11. "I don't know who he is. He consoled my father in his weakest moment, when he probably thought he was going to die, and he knew that he wasn't alone. He just kneeled down with my dad and held his hand the entire time."
John Rey survived just two weeks, but his daughters say he emerged from a medically-induced coma long enough to let them know he loved them.At one point, before surgery, he tapped his chest, gesturing to his heart. Now his daughters wear a special pin in his memory, showing a "Super Shuttle" van, with angel's wings.