Child’s death may bring changes

Published 8:36 am Friday, April 28, 2006

By By JOHN EBY / Niles Daily News
DOWAGIAC - Joe Zielinski, the Illinois man whose 7-year-old son was killed in an alcohol-related Jet Ski accident last Aug. 20 at Donnell Lake, talked to Dowagiac Union High School students Thursday morning about Ryan's death and changes in Michigan law he hopes the tragedy produces.
In a petition circulating in county high schools students urge legislators to consider the change.
Zielinski was told that the blood-alcohol level of Brandon Cripe, the Mishawaka, Ind. man who hit and killed Ryan, fell between .08 and .09.
Zielinski said he was released on tether after 41 days. “I was not notified and it was very disturbing,” he said. “This man is now allowed to drive a car and be able to drive a watercraft in about a year and a half from now. Is that justice? I don't believe so. It's just not right.”
Zielinski also said because the man is in his 30s, he was not required to take a boating safety course and did not take one voluntarily.
In fact, the sheriff and the prosecutor advised him that “you don't even need a driver's license to operate a Jet Ski, so you could have your driver's license suspended with a DUI and it is still legal to drive a Jet Ski.”
Zielinski said he can “only wonder” whether mandatory safety courses and more lake patrols might have saved his son.
Joe and his wife, Lisa, “had a great life,” he said. “We both worked full-time and were very busy raising our two sons,” Ryan and Kevin, 9.
Summers they spent almost every weekend at Donnell Lake near Vandalia.
His parents have a lake home there he's been going to “almost my whole life. Our boys would be so excited about going to the lake. They swam, fished, took rides on our Jet Skis and tubed behind the boat. We also enjoyed bonfires at night. It was like paradise for all of us.”
Ryan's tragic death wasn't their only setback in 2005.
That February, Lisa had a “horrific snowmobile accident,” he said. “She suffered a severe brain injury and requires 24-hour care. Since her accident, I tried to be by her side as much as possible. That required a lot of outside help, including taking care of the kids. My parents continued to take the boys to the lake every weekend in the summer. We tried to keep their lives as normal as possible.”
Then came Aug. 20, the “unthinkable.”
Zielinski arrived late Saturday afternoon after spending the day with Lisa at the nursing home - his routine all summer.
Ryan had been tubing behind a neighbor's boat with his brother and two other children.
Kevin and the two other kids on the tubes came inches from also being killed.
The Jet Skier was driving in the wrong direction and not paying attention to where he was going, Zielinski said. Instead of looking ahead, he was looking behind and accelerating.
Zielinski asked DUHS students gathered in the media center “to think twice before operating any type of motor vehicle or being a passenger when the driver has been drinking. I wouldn't want any of you to be responsible for someone else's death or have your parents suffer for the rest of their lives because of your own death.
“You can always call someone who is sober. Your friends, aunts, uncles, and, especially, your parents would rather pick you up drunk from a party instead of getting that phone call in the middle of the night from the police telling them their child is dead.”
He tried seeking professional help, “but there really aren't any answers for this type of loss.”
Kevin is doing incredibly well for the most part, though “it breaks my heart to see him do things without his brother. They were inseparable. I am also very concerned on the long-term effects this will have on him.”
Ryan was very talented. At 7, he could already play piano and accordion. Teaching him to read proved “effortless,” his dad remembers.
Ryan “always had a smile on his face and was constantly joking around. His death is really beyond words for me. I don't know how I will continue to go on with life without him, but one thing is for sure, my life will never be the same. Everyone who was touched by Ryan will never be the same.”
Zielinski shared a short conversation he had with his son while tucking him into bed one night weeks before his death.
Ryan asked, “Dad, what would it be like if I was dead?”
He paused. “Ryan, if you died, I would be sad for the rest of my life.”