FRUITPORT TOWNSHIP, Mich. (AP) — Jeremy Griffin was returning from his snowplowing route on Feb. 13, 2011, when he looked away from the road for a "split second" and slammed his snowplow into a 19-year-old West Olive man standing on the side of the highway.
In that moment that Griffin struck and killed Corey Francis McNett, he was either taking his truck out of four-wheel drive, grabbing a cigarette off his passenger's seat or glancing at his phone — he doesn't recall which. McNett's legs were amputated, and he died at the scene.
"I know for sure I took my truck out of four-wheel drive. I don't remember what I was doing before. I did get texts throughout the night. I was not texting, I was not talking (when it happened)," he said.
"Was I looking at my phone? Possibly. I recall not seeing a car, then seeing a car. I looked up, and I saw Corey's face and then a flash of white, which would have been the car."
Images of the horrific crash scene on northbound U.S. 31 near Shettler Road in Muskegon County's Fruitport Township have haunted 33-year-old Griffin of Muskegon Township "every day" over the past year.
McNett had just put gas in his vehicle and was in the process of closing the trunk of his mother's white Ford Taurus when Griffin's truck struck him.
His death due to distracted driving is part of a disturbing driving trend causing serious injury and death across the nation, authorities said. Michigan logged more than 34,000 crashes involving some forms of distracted driving and 9,000 cell phone-involved crashes alone in the past decade, statistics show.
McNett's family remains devastated by the loss of a young man his friends described as witty and warm-hearted.
"I look at pictures of Corey every day. It's so unreal. I expect him to walk through the door any day now," said his father, Ken McNett. "It's a living nightmare."
"The pain of his loss is simply unimaginable," added McNett's mother, Lisa McNett, in a statement.
Authorities are well aware of the dangers distracted drivers bring to the roads, but most say it's a problem that will only get worse as some technology evolves.
Muskegon County Sheriff Dean Roesler said drivers continue to "multi-task" rather than strictly focus on the road.
"We've tried to condition ourselves to multi-task even during times when we should be focused on driving," he said. "For the generations coming up, this multi-tasking, it's commonplace. That's all they know."
Cell phone use remains a large problem, but any sort of distraction can be deadly, Roesler said.
"With the amount of distractions — cells, GPS systems, videos — we've become conditioned that this is the norm, to be multi-tasking while driving," he said.
Statistics show that the problem was worse in 2010 than at any time in the past 10 years.
Nearly 4,000 crashes that year were partly attributed to some form of distracted driving.
McNett had been putting a gas container back into the trunk of his mother's white Ford Taurus around 12:45 a.m. that morning when Griffin, who works for R&R Landscape, was heading home from his snowplowing route.
Griffin recalls engaging in off-and-on cell phone conversations with his girlfriend throughout the night and receiving text messages.
Authorities said McNett and a friend, Tommy Fazi, who had been in the passenger's seat, had run out of gas.
They walked about 100 feet away from the roadway to a resident's home and borrowed a pop-bottle full of fuel, Fazi said.
When the amount of borrowed fuel wasn't enough to start the car, McNett set out on his own, back to the same house, for more.
Fazi remembers only a few moments before and after the crash, but recalls the last thing McNett said to him: "I'll be back." And then he walked away and returned with more fuel, Fazi said.
Fazi, up on his knees watching McNett pour gas into the tank, realized as his friend began to close the trunk that Griffin's truck was heading right for him.
"He wasn't able to close the trunk all the way," before he was hit, Fazi said.
The impact of the collision pushed the vehicle and McNett several feet away.
The force caused Fazi to lunge backward, making him strike his head and back on the front dash.
"I got out as fast as I could. The doors of the car came off so I slid out. I just tried to find Corey," Fazi said.
"I was scared and shaking. When I found him, I just thought he seemed OK. He seemed OK at first. He was breathing and talking for a second, and I told him I loved him. He was just breathing really, really hard."
Gripping audio from the 911 call details a chaotic, confusing accident scene. Griffin hopes McNett can be saved, but it doesn't take long for him to realize the severity of the man's injuries.
The crash has affected many lives, extending to McNett's 18-month-old daughter, Sophia, "who will never even have a memory of him," said Lisa McNett.
Griffin has had a difficult time even talking about the crash, but has learned to accept the consequences.
"I hate that I have caused someone's family so much pain. It was an accident. It wasn't a deliberate action. To live knowing you did this to someone is the hardest thing ever," he said, struggling to keep his composure.
Last week, Griffin was placed on probation for six months and ordered to perform community service and pay $850 in fines, fees and costs.
The McNett family reached a $1 million settlement last month with Griffin and R&R Landscape in a wrongful death lawsuit.
Information from: The Muskegon Chronicle, http://www.mlive.com/muskegon