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A year later

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By Don Pace

A groundbreaking ceremony Sunday marked the first anniversary of a tragic car crash that killed five members of a Las Vegas family.

Members of the Collins, Garcia and Gonzales families gathered with community members to dedicate ground that will become Paul’s Corner and memorialize Paul, Rene, Alisha, Jacquelynn, Selena and lone survivor Arissa Garcia.

Killed in the Nov. 11, 2006, crash were Paul Gonzales, 35, Rene Collins-Gonzales, 39, and three daughters: Alisha Garcia, 17; Jacquelynn Gonzales, 11; and Selena Gonzales, 10. The car they were riding in was struck head on by drunken driver Dana Papst, who was driving the wrong way on Interstate 25.

Las Vegas City Schools Superintendent Pete Campos opened the ceremony by telling the crowd that those who were lost were there in spirit and Arissa herself represented the spirit of life. He said the memorial would be a place for people to gather and remember the fallen as well as understanding that drinking and driving kills.

Mayor Henry Sanchez said the dedication ceremony, called the Spirit of Life, was a tribute to five souls taken too early and called Arissa a jewel who carries herself with grace and dignity.

Arissa’s grandfather, Ray Collins Sr., said his granddaughter has had a rough week going to the gravesite and reflecting on her family.

“It’s going to continue to be hard for her, but as she gets older, I think she will become a strong advocate against drinking and driving. As she grieves, she knows she’s got to do something in memory of her family and that’s what she’s going to do — that’s going to be her destiny.”

Ralph Gonzales, Paul’s father and grandfather of Jacquelynn and Selena, said it was a fitting ceremony and thanked the community and the state Legislature for coming together to make it happen.

“There’s no words to thank everyone for their support. It’s been a difficult time for our family, and I’m just glad that we raised a son that was such a wonderful person that the community misses him so much that they felt a need to tribute to him and his family,” Gonzales said.

Choking back tears, Ralph’s wife and Paul’s mother, Maxine Gonzales, said the tribute was great. She said when she learned about the memorial, it was the biggest honor one could bestow.

The Rev. George Salazar, who has comforted the family since the catastrophe, called the accident shocking.

“I think the whole community was shocked. That’s why I think today’s ceremony is so very, very important because it brings about this awareness. I don’t think we’ll ever know how many lives this awareness saves and how many more lives have to be saved,” Salazar said.

Salazar said he prays that the memorial won’t be something people just look at as they pass by.

“But that we look at it and are reminded and renewed in doing our part of the work in changing these things.”

Speaking of Arissa, the priest said only she knows what she carries in her heart and called her an inspiration to both young and old.

“You look at her and say, I would break, but that just shows us the power of the human spirit, and when it’s employed the right way, we can weather these things and make better things come out of it,” Salazar said.

West Las Vegas School Superintendent Jim Abreu said the family was an integral part the community and had ties on both the East and West side of town. He said Arissa Garcia, who attends West High School, continues to be an all-around good student, which is a tribute to her family.