The loud boom of a flash grenade kicked off the drama of a staged car crash on Central Avenue directly in front of Ceres High School for Thursday morning's surprise "Every 15 Minutes" program designed to impress upon students the dangers of drinking and driving.
In seconds students assembled in portable bleachers heard a 9-1-1 call booming over the loudspeaker with a veil removed from two cars set up for a mock crash. In the scene, a pedestrian played by Camryn Elness was fatally struck, causing a two-vehicle crash involving a drunken driver played by Ethan Lewis. Partially ejected onto the hood of the car was bloody passenger Joshua Gonzales who becomes a paraplegic. Within seconds a flurry of police and firefighter activity encircles the crash site. In minutes, emergency personnel were in motion to triage victims, stage a rescue of trapped crashed victim Daniel McElwain and portray a field sobriety test on the suspected drunken driver. McElwain was loaded on a gurney and wheeled to a CHP helicopter - dubbing for an unavailable Medi-Flight helicopter - which touched down just north of Whitmore Avenue.
Rachel Thomas, a frantic passenger in the drunken driver's car, paced around the scene with reactions to the horrifying scene before her. Her tears, screams and cries were realistically played before her classmates amid the rush of emergency activity in full play before her classmates.
"This program is very effective," commented Ceres Police Sgt. Jason Coley. "This is our 18th year participating with the CUSD. Each year, we set a goal to save one student from doing this. After talking with the students we feel we save all 23 and more from making a bad choice. Alcohol kills."
Coley said students in the stands were emotional on Thursday and Friday. "Unfortunately there are many families that are affected by alcohol and it's our job, along with the parents of each student to teach them the ramifications of what alcohol can do."
The two-day exercise began Thursday morning when pre-selected students were pulled from class by the Grim Reaper as a symbol of the sudden taking of lives in DUI-related crashes every 15 minutes across the United States. The students became the "living dead" who were kept away from their classmates and kept overnight at a retreat where they reflected on how thousands lose their lives in alcohol- and drug-related crashes. The students were also cut off from their cell phones and social media during the time. Parents of those students were paid visits by police chaplains who made "death notifications" at their homes or work places. The living dead were played by Alondra Alvarez, Ivan Arita-Torres, Colton Beard, Jhaala Curry, Ariadna Garcia, Javey Gomez, Lauren Gonzalez, Antonio Heras, David Jimenez, Esbeydi Lizola Gomez, Freddi Lopez-Leon, Suzonnah Lynn, Felipe Martinez, Jayden Panyanouvong, Grace Parsons, Luz Perez, Summer Ruiz and Mariah Trevino.
The event continued into Friday with a school assembly in the gym with a somber and emotional memorial service for the accident victims. The event featured emotional speeches given by parents and students and the showing of a video made at the crash scene and following the victims to the morgue and hospital and the suspect being jailed.
Ceres Police Sgt. Jason Coley said his department allocated personnel to the event but relied on faithful volunteers like Kathi Foster, Susan Borges, Kim Chapman Johnson, Shellie Coutrakis, Linda Cooper and Felicia Chapman.
"I have at least two or three people who have done this since 2000, volunteering their time to run this program, which means meeting months in advance on their own time to make sure this program happens," said Sgt. Coley. "Without them it would not happen. If they decide to quit one day this program may stop."
Foster said since grant funding for the event has been cut, efforts were made to seek donations from the community and businesses.
The first "Every 15 Minutes" program in Ceres was at Ceres High School was held in 2000.