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Secret Service agent paralyzed in crash with drugged driver speaks to students

By MARK HAYWARD
New Hampshire Union Leader

November 30. 2017 9:39PM
Secret Service agent Garrett FitzGerald, who was paralyzed in a crash with a driver who was on drugs, gets a standing ovation after speaking to students at McLaughlin Middle School in Manchester on Thursday. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

MANCHESTER -- Growing up, Garrett FitzGerald was the kind of guy who played sports, made good choices, and wouldn’t climb into a car if the driver had been drinking.

Despite all that, drugs upended his life.

It happened on Dec. 29, 2015, when Bruce Danforth, a driver high on heroin, slammed his car into a vehicle FitzGerald was riding in. A Secret Service agent, FitzGerald and three fellow agents were returning from a rally in Conway for then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Danforth was killed. FitzGerald remains paralyzed.

“The decision you guys make will have an impact. It could be drastic,” FitzGerald told an audience of about 650 kids at the McLaughlin Middle School gym on Thursday. “This all happened because of the decision someone made to get high on heroin and drive.”

FitzGerald moves about in a motorized wheelchair. Like any good speaker, he kept eye contact with his audience and traversed his stage (the gym floor).

He began his speech with an exuberant “What’s going on,” and a drawn-out “I’m a special agent with the Secret Service.” His voice bounced with inflections that his 30-year-old body is incapable of.

He spoke about making good decisions growing up. About working as an engineer but eventually turning toward law enforcement. It took him six years to land a job with the Secret Service.

The accident took place on Route 16. Previous reports said a car driven by Ossipee resident Bruce Danforth went to pass a car and collided with the Secret Service vehicle. A father and grandfather, Danforth was returning from Lawrence, Mass., where he scored heroin, FitzGerald said.

Both cars were traveling 40 mph, so the impact was like getting hit at 80 mph, FitzGerald said.

He had on his seatbelt, but that didn’t prevent the spinal injury. He said he could feel nothing, and breathing was nearly impossible.

A fellow agent called FitzGerald’s fiancee, Joan, with the news.

The couple was married two weeks later in the intensive care unit of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Rather than a grand, 200-person wedding, 10 people gathered around his bed. As FitzGerald said, they were serenaded by the electronic beeps and hisses of bedside monitors.

After a month of daily therapy, he regained some movement in his arm (but not fingers), which allows him to maneuver the wheelchair.

FitzGerald is an example of what can happen to anyone, said Marlaina Schmitt, a sixth-grader.

“I never want to do anything bad,” seventh-grader Emma Rossi said after the speech.

“I feel bad, but I also feel proud that he’s managed to make it this far,” said Audrey Saidel, a seventh-grader.

Kids had lots of questions for FitzGerald.

He has met former President Obama, which got a round of applause from the crowd. He still works as a Secret Service agent; he concentrates on financial and white collar crimes. Someone in the audience asked what he would say to Danforth, the driver of the car that hit him.

“I’d like to look him in the eye. I’d ask him why he went down that path, and what anyone could have done to change that.”

The presentation ended with the students giving him a standing ovation, and a McLaughlin Cougars T-shirt.

“That day, my life changed forever,” FitzGerald told them. But he refuses to let it define him. His choice, his hard work, his perseverance will do that. “That,” he said, “defines me.”

mhayward@unionleader.com


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