The loud boom of a flash grenade kicked off the drama of a simulated car crash in front of Ceres High School on Thursday morning designed to impress upon students the dangers of drinking and driving.
In just seconds students heard a 9-1-1 call over the loudspeaker which set in motion a flurry of police, firefighter and paramedic activity that included triaging victims and a field sobriety test on the suspected drunken driver, Oscar Galindo.
Ambulances carried off the injured as Medi-Flight whisked away the most gravely injured, student actor Austin Herrera. Coroner's official Tom Killian took away the lifeless body of Kailee Fox, who was smeared with blood-like syrup and ejected onto the hood of the car.
A twist to this year's "Every 15 Minutes" program was that the occupants in the innocent party vehicle were passenger Coach Brett Johnson and his son, driver Connor Johnson. During the simulation, students could hear Coach Johnson moan from his injuries in which he was paralyzed. Another twist is that firefighter Dan Foster arrived on scene to find his daughter, Kaitlyn Foster, a passenger of the DUI driver, rushing toward him for an emotional brace. Foster had no idea that his daughter would be in the exercise.
The day's events did not start with the simulation on a closed-off portion of Central Avenue in front of the campus. Instead, beginning at 7:50 a.m. students were randomly pulled from class by the Grim Reaper as a way to signifying the taking of lives to DUI related crashes every 15 minutes. The students 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 chaplain Joel Richards who made "death notifications" at their homes or work places.
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 seven personnel to the event but relied on faithful volunteers like Kathi Foster, Susan Borges, Kim Chapman Johnson, Shelie Coutrakis, Felicia Chapman and Trish Panos.
"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 the grant funding for the event had been cut from $10,000 to $6,000 so efforts were made to seek donations from the community and businesses. Cost Less Foods donated a large amount as did Custom American Meats. Other donors were the Ceres Lions Club, Cost Less, Costco, Diamond Bar Arena, Donut Town, Food 4 Less, Fresh Point Produce, KFC, Little Caesars Pizza, MOSCE, Producers Dairy, Rancho San Miguel, Sam's Cafe, Sysco Food, Paul Caruso, Dr. Jeff Barton, Ceres Firefighters Union Local 3636, Bertolotti Ceres Disposal, Modesto Commerce Bank, Embroidery Plus, MTC Distributing and Supermom's Frozen Yogurt.
The first "Every 15 Minutes" program at Ceres High School was held in 2000.
Killian, who was in the California Highway Patrol when the program first started and is now with the Coroner's facility, was asked his opinion of the program's effectiveness.
"You only hear about the ones who didn't get the message because they are the ones in the news who get killed or injured," said Killian. "You don't hear about the ones who take actions because of it."
Killian said one student who witnessed a program years ago said he still drinks but collects car keys or designates a driver at parties where some may get too buzzed or drunk.
"If you can save one it's worth all the effort," said Sgt. Coley.
The same sentiment was expressed by Ceres High School teacher and coach Shawna Nunes.
"If one kid changes something then it's positive," said Nunes.
Kathi Foster said she believes young adults make better choices after they can see the tangible results of unwise actions.
The event was tougher for her this year with her daughter playing one of the victims.
"It's tough. I didn't know until this morning what position she would have in it because that's what they held from me. When they said she's actually going to live, as sad as I was I was relieved. So many of these kids are like my own kids. They all call me Mom and Kailee who is ‘dying' she lives a court over from us. I cry thinking what her parents are going to go through when they have to go to the morgue."
Planning for the event started in 2015, said Coley.
Police staff members involved as actors were grim reapers played by Field Training Officer Ross Bays and School Resource Officer Pat Dayton. Walking dead students were Cody Beard, Aaron Black, Jalani Blankenship, Eva Borden, Marcellus Boykins-Hall, Austin Crain, Stephanie Garcia, Arturo Lopez-Puga, Chris Lubinsky, Jaime Mejia, Kendall Meyer, Breanna Moreno, Maya Ramirez, Ashley Schmidt, Myron Sichanpheng, Zach Smith, Vinay Soni, Cassandra Tapia, Alexander Torres and Tyree Williams.