Nineteen-year-old James Burke had nearly finished restoring his truck that was set to be featured in Hot Rod Magazine when he was hit by a drunk driver.
“He didn’t have the interior done yet, so he flew to the passenger side of his truck and hit his head and his brain immediately swelled,” Burke’s sister Kathy Langaard said of the crash that killed her brother in August 1979.
Langaard described her younger brother as “life in all capitals,” who was taken too soon.
“He was only just coming into his life, so who knows what he could have been,” she added.
Langaard was one of many of Burke’s family in attendance at the 16th annual Evening of Remembrance Wednesday evening at Central Park.
Hosted by the city of Santa Clarita, the event serves to remember and honor local youth who lost their lives in traffic-related incidents, as well as a reminder to Santa Clarita Valley residents to drive safely.
“I hate it only because it’s so emotional,” Langaard said of the event, which served as a reminder of her family’s loss, but also stood as a reminder of the good that’s come.
After her son’s death, Burke’s mother, Betty Burke Oldfield, worked to ensure a local trauma center was built, and co-founded Safe Rides with Penny Upton, a program that helped offer free, safe rides to more than 40,000 teens who felt unsafe to drive or ride with someone under the influence.
At Central Park stands the Youth Grove monument, where simulated tree stumps symbolize the 116 SCV youths’ lives cut short in traffic incidents, with names added every September before the annual remembrance event.
Motor vehicle crashes are the second leading cause of death for U.S. teens, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with approximately seven teens aged 13-19 killed every day due to motor vehicle crashes, and hundreds more injured.
It’s a statistic participants hope SCV residents will be part of changing by avoiding distracted driving, driving sober, focusing on the road and wearing their seatbelts.
“Let us try to remember the reason they are gone — as painful as it is,” said Alice Renolds, a mother who lost her two teenage sons more than 20 years ago in a high-speed car crash. “Please use that deep and searing pain in a message to everyone, old and young alike, to drive safe always.”
“I urge every person here to make a stand to be more conscious and aware when driving, or simply crossing the street, so that we can further avoid heartbreaking loss,” Mayor Pro Tem Laurene Weste added. “We must all pledge to be responsible, sober and focused when driving.”
Candles were then lit in the memory of their children, siblings and friends, signifying the ever-present love that will live on in their hearts, according to Renolds.
“If your loved one ever laughed, then trust that you too will laugh again,” Renolds added. “Let the joys of their life seep up through the layers of hurt to emerge into a single moment of light.”
For more information on the Youth Grove, visit santa-clarita.com/YouthGrove or call 661-250-3708.