Little more than a year ago, as the world mourned the drowning death of a 3-year-old Syrian refugee, MMA fighter Marcus Kowal saw the boy’s lifeless body and tried to imagine his father’s grief.
“I remember looking at that picture, and trying to put myself in his father’s shoes, but I was very far off on how it actually feels to lose a child,” Kowal tells PEOPLE, just days after making the wrenching decision to remove his only child, 15-month-old son Liam, from life support.
“Being a father is the most amazing thing that has ever happened to me,” Kowal says. “But I can’t … I have never felt more pain. Nothing comes even remotely close to this. Nothing.”
On Saturday, Liam was in his stroller going for a walk with his 15-year-old aunt when they were both struck by a car while crossing the street, according to investigators. Responding officers found the two victims in the street near the crosswalk. The teen suffered leg injuries while Liam was found “pulseless and not breathing.”
Authorities allege the driver of the vehicle, 72-year-old Donna Marie Higgins, attempted to flee the scene but was stopped by several witnesses.
After allegedly failing a field sobriety test, Higgins was charged with driving under the influence, felony hit-and-run and felony drunk driving, authorities said.
Higgins was released after posting a $100,000 bail. It was unclear Thursday whether she has entered a plea or hired an attorney.
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Liam was transported to UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles where doctors declared him brain dead after performing a battery of tests. Liam was removed from life support on Sunday – a decision that Kowal says took him and Liam’s mother, Mishel Eder, less than a minute to make.
“This whole thing has been torture,” Kowal tells PEOPLE, fighting back tears. “To stand there, watching these doctors testing him, checking his pupils, his reflexes … to be there, hoping that there might be some kind of movement, so that he can remain on life support and have a fighting chance was agonizing.”
“You know the damage has been done, but you’re just hoping he will move slightly – make a small twitch,” Kowal says. “But he didn’t, and we just wanted to sit in a room and cry.”
For two days, Liam’s parents were right by his side, offering him words of love and encouragement. “It just looked like he was sleeping,” Kowal says. “Before Liam, we didn’t realize how powerful that bond is that you have with your child. The pain is simply horrific.”
Kowal says he hasn’t been able to grieve Liam’s passing yet and likely won’t be able to until his son is laid to rest.
Liam’s funeral is scheduled for Monday, he tells PEOPLE. Liam’s organs have also been donated.
‘On a Mission’
While Kowal says he and his wife are still “so distraught” and essentially “walking around like zombies,” their son’s death has given them new purpose.
“I am on a mission,” Kowal says. “We’ve decided to turn his passing into something positive. We are going to keep fighting until this country adopts a zero tolerance policy towards drunk driving. ‘Legally drunk’ as a term is just insane. Liam is the second person I know to pass from a drunken driving accident within the last year and it has to change.”
Kowal tells PEOPLE that he plans to pressure lawmakers on his next trip to Washington and will seek a reduction in the legal driving limit from 0.08-percent blood alcohol level.
“I’m not going to be intimidated,” he vows.
“If we can’t have zero tolerance in this country, we need to lower the limit from 0.08 to 0.02 or 0.03,” he says. “There’s no reason to drink and drive with Lyft, Uber, taxis … if you can afford to go to a bar and drink, you should be able to afford a taxi home.”
Kowal also wants to meet with automobile manufacturers to see if there’s any improvements they can make to their vehicles to prevent intoxicated drivers from starting their cars.
“A woman offered us her car yesterday, and we’ve never met her,” Kowal tells PEOPLE. “We’ve heard from people from around the world. They’re reaching out with poems, drawings, words of support; one girl wrote a song … the things people have done for us in the wake of this has restored faith in humanity.”
Kowal is also keen on launching a non-profit organization in Liam’s name that will “help people impacted by drunken driving in the future.” A GoFundMe campaign has already generated more than $120,000 in donations for that very cause.
But first he needs to bury his son.
“Liam would light up a room,” Kowal says. “I know every parent says their child is special, but when you have rough, rugged MMA fighters crying like children next to his bed, it says a lot.”