Moment's choice leaves sad, lasting mark


Responsible. The go-to girl. The dependable one.

Those are the words Ruthy Elliot uses to describe how her daughter met the world head-on.

Making Shannon Elliot's death in a drunken-driving crash Dec. 18, 2009, nearly impossible to wrap her mind around.

Shannon was the drunken driver.

I can't say I knew Shannon. For sure, we had met and I had the pleasure of seeing what everyone called her "Cheshire-cat" smile from time to time. It was the kind of grin that prompted spontaneous delight in one's own heart.

But I know Ruthy. She and I became lifetime friends as we teamed up to give my disabled brother Dwight the best 40 days on earth one human could reasonably expect after hearing one has cancer, so much cancer.

Ruthy and I sat together during diagnosis, drugs and dying. We sighed in frustration that the good, do indeed, die young.

Since then, we've cried together over other tragedies.

Like Shannon's death.

At 23, this child exploded with life, with future plans, with love for her friends and family. Her goal was to be a teacher, to take grade-schoolers under her wing and infuse them with her love of learning.

Her girl was vibrant and just full of life, Ruthy said.

Shannon usually held two jobs at once and fit school in the schedule whenever possible. Six months before she died, she graduated from Walla Walla Community College and she had buying a house in her sights. She had recently moved back home to finish paying off her debts, Ruthy said.

Shannon never stinted her generosity for her family, though. "It didn't have to be a birthday or anything, she would just find the right thing for someone and pick it up."

On the night of the crash, Ruthy's fridge was stuffed with groceries her girl had bought to make her company's Christmas dinner. By herself, because that was how Shannon rolled: See the need, fill the need.

For years, the young woman was often the designated driver among her friends. She would turn late-night parties into slumber parties so no one would drive after drinking, Ruthy said, describing seeing Shannon's living room filled wall to wall with sleeping bodies on some mornings.

But Ruthy and her husband, Bill, would later learn that their daughter's habits were starting to change, that she was suffering some anxiety attacks. And using alcohol to quell those.

On Dec. 17 that year, Shannon decided to give up on trying to sleep and went to hang with friends. Ruthy was at work, just finishing a shift at the group home where Dwight had once lived. As she drove home to Waitsburg that night, Ruthy noticed the fog lingering on U.S. Highway 12 at the Wilbur Avenue exit, near the Albertsons where Shannon had worked for years.

It was the same fog Shannon would drive into about four hours later, after leaving a party at 3 a.m.

My friend doesn't know much about how that night went for Shannon. They know she had a bite to eat at a Walla Walla sports bar and that she later bought beer to take to the party. "Everybody there was drinking heavily," Ruthy said.

She understand Shannon's close friend begged her to leave the party earlier. Ruthy knows a young man made a date with Shannon that night and her girl was in a "great" mood.

And that she assured the young man she was fine to drive. "Which every person there was not fine to drive," Ruthy said. "None of them had any business driving."

People who saw Shannon headed for the highway reported those same observations to 911 dispatchers, Ruthy knows that much.

It was the Walla Walla County coroner who told the family that Shannon had ended up going east on the road's westbound lane.

Sleep-deprived, fog-handicapped, drunken Shannon.

She got down the road from the Wilbur exit a little way, what with no traffic at that hour. Until two log trucks came along.

The first one managed to evade Shannon's little pickup, and the second truck driver was in the process of trying to do the same when her child inexplicably drove straight at the truck's fuel tank. "There is speculation she woke up at that point or that she was so drunk she was oblivious," Ruthy said. "We'll never know if she didn't realize she was on the wrong side."

No one wants to say they are glad their daughter died, but my friend is glad her baby was gone on impact and not left to burn the way her truck burned after it hit that fuel tank. Burned so hot that the coroner couldn't even tell the color of Shannon's eyes and the family had to wait three agonizing days for identification through dental records.

It's what Ruthy tells the high school students she speaks to about drinking and driving, as they gaze at the blackened shell of her daughter's truck, the rig Shannon loved like anything. "I want to make sure the kids look at it, to see that little patch on the driver's seat that wasn't burned, to know it was the only place Shannon wasn't burned. That there was a person sitting in there."

At Walla Walla County's Traffic Safety Task Force victim impact panels, Ruthy and her youngest son, Paul, tell the audience all about Shannon, the joy she brought, who she was -- silly, vivacious, goofy. "How much she meant to so many people and how that one choice that night ... you can't make a reasonable decision with alcohol. That one decision affected all of us."

It's a ripple effect that doesn't stop, spreading from the Elliot family to the emergency responders who arrived to try and rescue the girl who was already gone that night.

"I also tell them she wanted to be a teacher and I have taken over her mission. Our goal is to have everyone help us by teaching others not to drink and drive."

If Ruthy has her way, that will be the continuous message so that no other family suffers how hers has.

To that end, the Traffic Safety Task Force is hosting a dedication ceremony for Shannon's memorial sign to be placed on Highway 12, at the southeast corner of the Walla Walla Regional Airport on Saturday at 11:30 a.m.

The public is invited.

She's glad for the sign, and for the family gathering it brings, my friend said. "But we would give anything to have her back."

The banner Ruthy chose for those presentations with Shannon's truck says it all, she feels -- "The problem with drinking and driving is the mourning after."

Sheila Hagar can be reached at or or 526-8322.


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