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Mom: Daughter's death in drunk-driving crash 'preventable'

Tragedy is one Project Roadblock hopes to prevent with nationwide campaign

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – A mother who lost her 15-year-old daughter in a drunk driving crash said she hopes her story will convince drivers not to get behind the wheel if they've been drinking.

Mary Kelley's tragic loss is one of thousands Project Roadblock hopes to prevent with its nationwide campaign.

WJXT is a proud supporter of the campaign, which runs from Dec. 26-31 -- one of the deadliest weeks of the year for auto fatalities. Its main message is "buzzed driving is drunk driving" and encourages people to designate a sober driver if they're going to drink at all.

RELATED: Project Roadblock aims to reduce drinking, driving

Jeffrey Ertle didn't heed that warning, and Mary Kelley and her family paid the price.

Kelley's daughter, Emily Cook, was killed Dec. 13, 2014, in Gainesville. She was spending the night with her new friend, Ashley Ertle, when about 10 p.m., Ertle's dad, Jeffrey, said he would take the girls to a gas station.

"He passed several cars at 85 miles per hour if not more,” said Mary Kelley, Emily's mother.

On the two-lane road, Ertle collided with a woman driving an SUV.

"She T-boned the front passenger seat, which is where Emily was sitting in her seat belt,” Kelley said. "When I pulled up and saw all of the lights, my heart just started pounding and beating. My heart was in my stomach."

Emily and Ashley both died at the scene. 

Troopers later learned Jeffrey Ertle had a blood alcohol level nearly three times the legal limit. He is serving a 20-year sentence in prison for two counts of DUI manslaughter. 

"We lost our bright, beautiful, 15-year-old daughter to a drunk driver,” Kelley said. "No matter how dull the room was, she was sure to come in and brighten that room. She never knew a stranger, she loved everyone, she's family-oriented."

Emily was the youngest of four siblings, and that Christmas was a difficult one for Kelley and her family.

"I go to her bedroom immediately, and I hold her pillow because I can smell her, and that's all I had to hold on to. I didn't get to see her,” Kelley said. "It is the biggest hole in my life, not having her... There used to be this huge light in my life, and she was it. And it's burnt -- it's been blown away."

Emily's ashes now lie in an urn above her family's fireplace.

The passionate high school weightlifter and aspiring K-9 officer's life was cut short in a crash on 53rd Avenue, just a couple of blocks away from her home.

Now all that remains is a memorial site decorated with crosses, flowers and other memorabilia in honor of Emily and Ashley -- a reminder of how one bad decision can change lives.

"It could have been so prevented. She could still be here with us today,” Kelley said. “This is such a preventable death, and it's so unfair for the family to have to suffer through this when someone could have made a better decision."

Kelley said she hopes the memorial urges drivers to make the right decision before they get behind the wheel.

She is now active with Mothers Against Drunk Driving and said she hopes her story will convince people to think twice before getting in the car with someone who has been drinking.

Even if it's a parent or trusted loved one, it's important to seek other options, Kelley said, and keep that person from getting behind the wheel.