It wasn’t an accident. Jim Swearengin is definite about that.
“It’s a crash,” said Swearengin, speaking in the present tense about the loss of his younger brother, David, more than 16 years ago.
David Swearengin was killed April 19, 1998. His car was struck head on by a drunken driver in a pickup on Highway 530 near Arlington. His three school-age children suffered severe injuries in the Sunday afternoon crash that claimed their 41-year-old father’s life.
Jim Swearengin, 61, said Monday that the crash was entirely preventable. Driving drunk, he said, “is frankly a very selfish choice.”
“They say that time heals all wounds, but it really never goes away. It really doesn’t,” he said.
To help prevent other families from experiencing that pain, Swearengin has shared details of his loss many times.
On Sept. 16, he was honored for years of volunteer service with the Snohomish County DUI &Target Zero Task Force. Swearengin spoke for years to drunken-driving offenders in court-ordered sessions, in prison, and to school groups as part of the Snohomish County DUI Victim Panel.
The panel meets several times each month at Everett Station. Those required to attend pay a $50 fee. If there is space, guests and driver education students may also attend.
As the longtime coordinator of the county DUI task force, Tracy McMillan knows it’s been grueling for Swearengin to share his brother’s story again and again. “He’s such a proud, quiet man,” she said.
The victim panel is losing his powerful voice to retirement. The DUI task force’s Sept. 16 meeting was a surprise goodbye for Swearengin, complete with a proclamation from County Executive John Lovick thanking him for his service.
“We’re losing a huge asset,” McMillan said. “The DUI victim panel is 100 percent volunteer. He put in countless hours.”
After 36 years working for the county’s public works department, the Arlington man will soon retire from his day job, too. Swearengin plans to sell his Arlington area home and move with his wife, Debra, to Louisiana, near Baton Rouge. His son lives there, and he has a 5-year-old granddaughter. He also has a place near Omak, and will spend summers there.
David Swearengin also lived in Arlington. He worked at the Kimberly-Clark mill in Everett.
“They always went hunting together,” McMillan said of the brothers. “David was a great father. This has been Jim’s life — losing his brother, working all these years, and trying to keep our roads safe,” she said.
In September 1998, the 39-year-old driver of the pickup pleaded guilty in Snohomish County Superior Court to vehicular homicide and vehicular assault. He was sentenced to five years in prison. Nearly two hours after the crash, according to court papers, his blood-alcohol level was nearly double the legal limit. And he had been convicted of drunken driving in 1995.
“I honestly didn’t think the punishment fit the crime,” Swearengin said Monday. He described his brother as fun-loving. “He lived life for the moment,” Swearengin said.
His brother’s children, a son and two daughters, all endured long hospital stays. “He was their mainstay,” Swearengin said. Just one of his brother’s children is still in the area.
Conrad Thompson, chairman of the DUI task force, said that for years Swearengin has been “one of the go-to people.”
“He’s quiet and humble, but he’s one of those people who gets things done,” said Thompson, a retired Snohomish County District Court probation officer.
At the task force meeting, Thompson and McMillan presented Swearengin with a picture of the “Please Don’t Drink and Drive” memorial sign in his brother’s honor superimposed on an artistic photograph of a railroad bridge. The sign is actually located on Highway 530 east of Trafton.
David Swearengin’s name also is on the Snohomish County DUI Victims Memorial Wall at McCollum Park in south Everett. There are now 125 names on that wall, McMillan said.
In all his talks to offenders and students, Swearengin hoped to reach at least one person. There is no excuse for driving drunk, he said.
“We have cellphones. We have cab companies,” Swearengin said. “I’ve told everybody I know, ‘If you ever need a ride, call me.’”
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; firstname.lastname@example.org.