WEIRTON - More than 200 area residents gathered Saturday evening to learn more about the effects of addiction and its impact on the Weirton area.
The third-annual Never Alone rally supporting a drug free community was held at the Weirton Event Center, with group members, local officials and others delivering a message of hope for those dealing with addiction.
Founder Patti Barnabei discussed the creation of Never Alone W.Va. approximately three years ago and its continuing work to raise awareness of drug issues in the area while creating a support system to help those battling addiction.
"We want to create more awareness and save more lives," Barnabei said.
Those in attendance at Saturday's rally included residents from West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
In addition to performances by local bands, dance schools and the Weir High cheerleaders, the rally carried messages of sadness and hope from people who have dealt with addiction themselves or lost loved ones as a result of drugs.
Among those sharing their experiences was Walter Ruszkowski, whose son, Tony, died last year following a car accident at the age of 22. Ruszkowski said while no one is sure what happened that morning of July 3, 2011, he believes his son's drug addiction contributed to it.
"It's something nobody should ever have to deal with," Ruszkowski said, encouraging families and friends to talk to each other to deal with their problems and get help. "You never know what's going to happen."
Also speaking was former Del. Pat McGeehan, who discussed his own battles with alcohol, which he said escalated through his 20s as a way to deal with witnessing the death of his father in a B-52 crash and his own experiences in the military.
He said his drinking reached its pinnacle with the bankruptcy of his business, Mountain State Packaging. It was around that time he noticed he was drinking by himself at home, and even feeling the need to have a drink just to sleep at night.
Eventually, McGeehan said he sought help through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
"They helped me out tremendously, and I never looked back," McGeehan said.
Others speaking included a man identified as "Ed" who said he probably should have died 20 times from his drug addictions, but found help by helping others, and Carmen Capozzi, of Greensburg, Pa., who spoke about the death of his son, Sage, as a result of a heroin addiction, and the creation earlier this year of Sage's Army, to help spread an anti-drug message in his area.
Eric Zaney, medical operations director for Weirton Area Ambulance and Rescue Squad, was on hand to provide some of the statistics in the area, noting they continue to see a rise in drug cases at the ambulance service.
"Our numbers are increasing every year," Zaney said, noting WAARS has responded to 80 overdose calls already this year and provided 254 transports for conditions related to the effects of drug addiction.
Zaney explained some of the treatments they provide when encountering drug-related issues and said WAARS is staffed around the clock to help with the city's medical emergencies.
"Don't think there's no one there for you," he said.
Saturday's rally also included a butterfly release in memory of those who have been lost to addiction, a donation of $5,000 from ArcelorMittal Steel and a candle-lit walk through the neighborhood.
(Howell can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, and followed via Twitter @CHowellWDT.)