LEWISBURG - Renee Lutz Diaz and a few of her friends were returning from a Memphis nightclub nearly 13 years ago. The events that night would change their lives forever.

It was dark along Stateline Road and a stop sign whizzed past. They had been drinking.

Two of her friends would die that night. Diaz herself would be paralyzed for life and her best friend Brooke Morris Stillwell would have to undergo more than 19 surgeries to repair her face and injured body.

"I had to relearn how to walk, talk and even breathe again," Stillwell said.

The Olive Branch High School students were carrying fake IDS and riding in a Mitsubishi Eclipse. The 18-year-old driver, who had been drinking, lost control of the vehicle, hit a patch of gravel and struck a telephone pole.

The small car split in two, killing the driver, Paul Hollaway, and his girlfriend, a 16-year-old Olive Branch High School cheerleader named Virginia Dunning.

The date is etched in her memory forever: Nov. 27, 1997.

Flash forward to 2010 and Diaz, now 28, rolled out onto the Lewisburg High School auditorium stage to a hushed crowd of juniors and seniors. Stillwell was at Renee's side along with her father Robert Courtney Lutz as she spoke about her actions that night.

"You have choices," Diaz said, her pant legs dangling off the foot pedals of her wheelchair. "We decided to go out drinking and have a little fun. We had done it a number of times before."

Diaz said she was scared to call her parents at the time because she feared being grounded. Now, in retrospect, she wished she had.

"You could hurt yourself or somebody else," Diaz said. "It could be the last choice you make."

Diaz's personal testimony is part of the first-ever Prom Promise program held at the school. Lewisburg High School celebrates its prom on Saturday.

A dozen years ago, Lewisburg High School didn't even exist. Programs like Prom Promise, which are designed to warn young people about the dangers of drinking and driving, were still in their infancy.

"I really felt like Renee's speech hit home," Student Council Sponsor Debra Troutman said. "As adults, we're constantly preaching don't drink. Renee said you have choices to make before you get into a situation like that."

Troutman said most parents would rather get a call from a son or daughter too drunk to drive rather than from a hospital official or law enforcement officer informing them their child has been injured or killed.

Courtney Lutz said he only wished Renee had called him instead of hearing the frantic voice of Renee's stepfather on the other end of the line.

"That Thanksgiving Eve I worked until 1 a.m.," Lutz said. "About 5:30 a.m. I heard the phone ring. The fogginess of sleep was instantly replaced by the rush of terror and anger. I knew it had to be unspeakable bad news. I knew my world was about to change forever."

Lutz said at the hospital he remembers seeing other parents "in various stages of shock and disbelief."

"The car had split in half on a telephone pole," Lutz said. "Two kids had died instantly."

His daughter Renee was in critical condition and Stillwell's injuries were so severe he wasn't sure if she would ever recover.

"Over time, I stopped counting the surgeries," he said. "These young ladies were only in their high school years. I hope that no matter who your friends are, if they make the choice to drink and drive that you have the power to say no. Every drink you take will steal your ability to say no. Your parents would much rather get a call from you at 1 a.m. than get a call at 5 a.m. like I got."

Horn Lake firefighter Josh Wright spoke directly to the students.

"It's real," he said. "I'm going to tell you straight forward. I can't tell you how many students I have picked up dead off the road. It just takes one incident and you're dead. Do not let this one time be your last time."

Robert Lee Long: rlong@desototimestribune.com or at 662-429-6397, Ext. 252

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