It took Theresa Gagnon a few days to find the right words.
After learning that her younger brother, Michael Gagnon, had been accused of killing a Parkville woman and four children in an accident Sunday on an Ohio highway, his sister took pen to paper.
Her aim, she said yesterday from her home in Muskegon, Mich., was to express to everyone concerned - especially Daniel G. Griffin Jr., who lost his wife, two children and two stepchildren - how deeply her family regretted what had occurred.
"We're sorry that it took so long, but we didn't know the words to say," said Gagnon, 25, her voice hushed, after sending The Sun a statement from her "close and once happy family."
In the statement, she expressed remorse for the tragedy that took the lives of Bethany Griffin, 36; Jordan Griffin, 10; Vadi Griffin, 8 weeks; Lacie Burkman, 7; and Haley Burkman, 10, as they headed home after Christmas. Two other children survived.
Police arrested Michael Gagnon, 24, upon his release from a Toledo hospital, where he had been treated for minor injuries, and charged him with five counts of aggravated vehicular homicide. Gagnon, who was jailed in lieu of $1.25 million bail, was found to have had a blood-alcohol level at the time of the accident three times the legal limit.
"Our brother cannot apologize in person to everyone that has been affected, but we promise that we will do that for him," Gagnon's sister wrote in her family's statement. "Although our thoughts and prayers will always be with our son and brother, please understand that my dearest sympathies, thoughts, and prayers, and undivided attention extends to all family members, friends and individuals that have been touched by this tragic situation."
Theresa Gagnon said she was writing not only on behalf of her brother, Michael, but for her parents, Michael and Clara Gagnon; her sister, Savannah, 19; and her brother Samuel, 21. The two brothers worked in construction, and their mother occasionally as a beautician.
"This is affecting our family and everyone around us," she said in the phone interview. Her 48-year-old father worked for the Ford Motor Co., but was forced to retire after injuring his back in 2003, she said, and things got tough financially for the family.
"My brother Michael would give us a little money here for the bills," said Theresa Gagnon, who moved back home after her father's injury. "He'd help us here to make sure we had the things we needed."
She said her brother wanted to be an architect. For a time, he had attended Jackson Community College in Adrian, Mich., where he lived, and was planning on going back. He sometimes fixed things in neighbors' houses, even helped build a few, she said, and had a lifelong dream of starting his own construction business.
"Michael is like every kid," she said. "We all struggled through our 20s. He was trying to find his way in life. He was trying to find his purpose."
He and his brother used a Ford pickup truck for their work - the vehicle that police say Michael was driving on the night of the accident. Michael Gagnon had spent part of Sunday evening with his brother and some friends at the Rodeo Bar and Grill in Oregon, near Toledo, when he left abruptly, his brother told The Sun.
Michael Gagnon was seen later at a Taco Bell, where employees deemed him so intoxicated that they called police. Before an officer arrived, he got back into his truck and headed the wrong way on Interstate 280 for about four miles, police said, before the collision with Griffin's minivan.
The Griffin family has issued a statement asking the media to respect their privacy as they grieve.
Lindsay M. Komlanc, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Public Safety, said yesterday that her agency is seeking witnesses "to the individual's behavior at the bar."
Specifically, she said, investigators were trying to determine whether Michael Gagnon had been served alcohol after it was clear that he was inebriated.
Theresa Gagnon said yesterday that she and other members of her family were open to speaking with anyone in the Griffin and Burkman families at any time.
"We understand," she said, "that it's hard right now."
A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Tuesday at St. Luke Evangelical Lutheran Church, 7001 Harford Road. Carney Elementary School, which two of the children attended, has set up a Burkman/Griffin Fund to help the two families at Bank of America, 1952 E. Joppa Road, Baltimore 21234.
Statement from the Gagnon family
To especially the Griffin and Burkman family, but to also all of the readers of this article:
As a writer who comes from a close and once happy family, we all would like to express our remorse and the absolute concern for the tragedy that has happened. Everyone that reads this article knows that we all have been placed in opportunities of making sound decisions or have somehow failed the improper ones. A tragedy such as this one shows how fast life can change, or in all situations, turn around unexpectedly. The sudden and devastating loss of such innocent lives, those that did not have the chance to make much of an impact upon those outside of the immediate family, is a loss of unbearable tolerance.
And for this, we are all truly at a standstill to [tell] you how we feel right now. The loss of these five people, who have been important [assets] in the lives of many, was something to us that is unimaginable. Although our thoughts and prayers will always be with our son and brother, please understand that my dearest sympathies, thoughts, and prayers, and undivided attention extends to all family members, friends, and individuals that have been touched by this tragic situation. Our brother cannot apologize in person to everyone that has been affected, but we promise that we will do that for him. My mother, father and the rest of my family want you all to know that the Griffins and the Burkman's will always be in our continued prayers and thoughts. I pray that God will be there to guide each and every one of us as the days bring about new challenges to overcome. May the words of my mouth and the meditation upon each of our hearts be acceptable in your sight.
Our prayers and thoughts,
The Gagnon Family