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ALBERTON – The two freckle-faced cousins found bliss in this less-than-a-square-mile town, trolling its backcountry for adventure and traveling no farther than the downtown cafe for family and friendship.

Daniel Hanson and Kent Fisher were first cousins, roommates and best friends, and they were riding side-by-side in Hanson’s Subaru station wagon on the evening of Aug. 4, 2008, returning home from a barbecue, when a drunken driver appeared out of the blackness and smashed head-on into the men.

“I will always remember them, side-by-side, pilot and copilot, inside that maroon-colored Subaru traveling around Montana,” wrote Dan’s father, Mark Hanson, in a victim impact statement to a Missoula judge. “Who could have ever foreseen they would both come to harm, in that very car, by a reckless drunk driver in such a heinous way?”

Daniel Hanson, 25, was killed instantly, while Fisher, 20, hung on for more than a week before he died at a Seattle hospital, just two days after his cousin’s funeral. They were both the grandsons of Alberton Mayor Joe Hanson, and their deaths devastated the tiny town of 420 people.

“These are town boys. More so even than the average town boy because so many people know them,” said Keren Wales, the owner of Montana Valley Bookstore, a social hub of downtown Alberton.

“Joe is our mayor and these are his grandsons,” she continued. “They help him all the time at the junkyard and baling hay. We’re crushed in the heart for what happened, and we’re crushed for Joe. In a town of 400 people, we become very close-knit. And to have it be a drunk driver going the wrong way on the freeway. It just exasperates.”

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It’s been more than 18 months since the accident and the town is still reeling. Its residents found little solace in the lengthy prison sentence of the offending driver, and even less comfort in the knowledge that similar tragedies occur almost daily in every corner of the state.

“It’s tough,” says Mayor Hanson. “It’s really tough. But we all have to assume responsibility. We condemn him on the one hand, but at some point we have to address Montana’s culture of alcoholism.”

Montana consistently ranks first in the nation for the number of alcohol-related fatal wrecks per miles driven, and last year drunken drivers were responsible for 40 percent of Montana’s highway fatalities, according to figures from the state Highway Patrol’s records management department. As of last week, alcohol-related fatalities already comprised 25 percent of the total number of highway fatalities in 2010, just as they did last year at this time.

In the last five years, 34 Montanans have been convicted of the felony charge of vehicular homicide while under the influence, according to records maintained by the Department of Corrections.

One of those felons is Lonnie Ray Hylton, a decorated Air Force veteran from Great Falls. Hylton had been in an alcoholic blackout for days when he climbed behind the wheel of his Dodge pickup truck 18 months ago and drove onto Interstate 90 heading the wrong way.

With a blood-alcohol content of 0.32, four times the legal limit, and with his headlights shut off, Hylton hurtled through the gloaming and ran several motorists off the road, injuring a woman.

As the dusk grew deeper and deeper, Hylton continued on his path for four miles before he collided with the oncoming Subaru near Airway Boulevard, killing the two cousins from Alberton.

Hylton, who had no criminal record before the crash, was convicted of two counts of vehicular homicide while under the influence and three counts of criminal endangerment. At sentencing, he said he didn’t remember the deadly crash, nor did he recall anything from the two days before.

Missoula District Judge Ed McLean sent the man to prison for 60 years, with 30 years suspended, and ordered him to pay restitution to the victims’ families.

Deputy Missoula County Attorney Jennifer Clark said Hylton had been disciplined for drinking during his time in the Air Force, and on the night of the crash he ran a family of five off the road while on his “deadly path.” The outcome, she said, could have been far worse.

“The citizens of our state are being murdered by their fellow citizens, and that is not OK,” Clark said.

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Six days after the crash, more than 100 people gathered at the town park to mourn Dan Hanson’s loss and celebrate the boys’ lives by telling stories, laughing and playing music in the sunlit field along the Clark Fork River.

Mark Hanson talked about how his son, Dan, and his nephew, Kent – who would die two days later, enjoyed Montana’s rivers and streams, its remote hot springs and fresh huckleberries, and the fact that they could grow a garden and have campfires in their own backyard.

On a recent March morning, Mayor Hanson stood in the same park and reflected on the community’s struggle to learn from the accident, pointing at the taverns along Railroad Avenue, bedecked with banners advertising beer sales and happy hours.

“We’re like a lot of small towns. We’ve got five churches and five watering holes,” Hanson said. “We’ve tried to evolve from a hard-drinking, hard-working Western town where drinking and driving is a rite of passage.”

Hanson said the deaths of his grandsons galvanized the town of Alberton, just as he’s seen other small communities jolted by similar tragedies. But once the shocks wear off, Hanson isn’t sure that anything changes.

“It shakes you out of your habits, your patterns, but then you go right back to doing the same thing,” he said. “The time has come to put that notion of a hard-drinking culture to rest for good. It hasn’t been valid since the railroad days.”

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Mineral County Attorney Shaun Donovan said no one is immune to the hazards of drunken driving, and sending offenders to prison is one way to deter their behaviors.

“The deaths of the boys from Alberton are a reality check that drunk drivers have the ability to kill any of us who use the roads, and in rural Montana, that is all of us,” Donovan said. “Too often they are given special treatment because they do not intend the consequences of their crashes. In actuality, these offenders are a bona fide threat to the community and need to be treated like dangerous people.”

Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Richard Hader is also a member of the Alberton City Council, and although he didn’t live in Alberton when Kent and Dan were killed, he’s seen the devastation of drinking and driving firsthand in communities across the state, both in his professional and personal lives.

“Alberton is a pretty close-knit little town, as you would expect in a community of 400 people, and to have two of its residents killed is going to have ripple effects for a long time,” he said. “We’re all absolutely sick and tired around here of drunk drivers tearing families and communities apart. We’re all waiting for someone to stand up and take the bull by the horns.”

When Hader was 20 years old, his oldest brother died while driving drunk near Lakeside. His father was an alcoholic, too, and would start drinking at 10 a.m. while he was working.

“He was one of those guys who was probably a functioning 0.15 all of the time,” Hader said. “He’d get off work, go to the bar for four or five hours, get up the next day at 5 in the morning and do it all over again.”

“This is hitting home more and more every day,” he said. “And it’s something that can be prevented, no doubt about it. People are going to drink, and they’re going to make their decisions. We just hope they don’t get behind a 4,000-pound missile.”

Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at 523-5264 or at tscott@missoulian.com.

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