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'Every 15 Minutes' event held
A solemn hush fell over Central Valley High School students assembled in grand stands Thursday morning to witness, in vivid and gory detail, the aftermath of a simulated drunk driving crash staged on Service Road.

The intent of the "Every 15 Minutes" program is to give students - at the outset of the traditional prom and graduation season - a graphic representation of real-life consequences of drunk driving.

"I think students now are definitely are going to be aware of the consequences of drinking and driving and will stop and think before making choices," said CVHS activities director Kristin Lilly-Porter. "But time will tell if they have truly grasped the significance of this program."

The chillingly authentic recreation centered on a pair of crashed cars and mangled occupants who were being triaged by a small army of off-duty policemen and firefighters and finally the coroner who whisked away fatality victim played by Taylor Rogers. The drama began with a 9-1-1 call booming over the sound system, a responding wail of sirens and arrival of emergency vehicles over cries of anguish from victims. It continued through a DUI investigation and the "arrest" of intoxicated driver, CVHS student Gerard Cazares. Within minutes, the Medi-Flight helicopter was dropping onto the school grounds as one of the victims, Jaime Lomeli, was whisked off to Memorial Medical Center where he succumbed to injuries. Artificially bloodied up victims Taylor Rogers, Matt Kitavong - he becomes a quadraplegic from injuries - and Brenna Wideman added to the realism.

During the exercise, foreboding Grim Reapers played by Ceres officers walked around the macabre scene with wooden-handed sickles in hand. A silent and emotionless group of eight students, representing the "walking dead," watched the calamity with whitened faces and darkened eye sockets to represent corpses.

The drama on Service Road continued unrelentingly all day Thursday in classrooms when pre-chosen students were pulled from class every 15 minutes to represent a victim who dies every 15 minutes each day from a drunk driving crash in America. A brief obituary of the student was read as they silently left the classroom. Students who were tapped out were cut off from family and friends for the rest of Thursday and through Friday until after the program's conclusion.

Participating students had prior approval of their parents to spend the night at a location for a chaperoned retreat on Thursday, not being allowed to go home. There the students wrote farewell letters to their family and engaged in team-building exercises. Parents of those involved also met Thursday evening for a retreat, writing good-bye letters to their child, hearing guest speakers and writing letters to their children. Some were read at the Friday assembly.

One by one, a parent of a victim was paid a visit at home or job site by a pastor or uniformed officer who made an in-person death notification.

Pastor and Ceres Police chaplain Joel Richards said the notification emotionally grips parents despite knowing the event is pretend. Lomeli's parents were followed by a video crew as they met Richards at the county morgue on Oakdale Road where they watched their son being slid out from the morgue cold storage drawer, and unzipped from a bag to be identified.

"Taylor Rogers' parents thought they would be able to keep in mind that it was fake but the second they saw their daughter cold and covered in the fake blood and in the morgue they broke down for the first time," said Lilly-Palmer.

"It seems very real, the reality of losing a child," said Richards. "It hits parents right where their fears are. We make it as real as possible. You see the reality of what can happen when you drink and drive."

On Friday morning, juniors and seniors were brought into the gym to a funeral-like assembly. There they heard tearful speeches and watched a heart-wrenching video of the accident scenario, followed by its aftermath - going with the victims to the hospital or morgue - and watching the reaction of parents who were told their child was severely injured or dead. Guest speaker Charlie Craine told of his real-life story of losing both his brother and son in two separate alcohol-related vehicle accidents.

"I don't think there was a dry eye in the room," said Lilly-Porter. "It was very emotional. The seniors and juniors were completely quiet and respectful. The kids really felt like we cared. When we put on programs like that they feel like the adults surrounding them really care about them."

CHP spokesman Eric Parson said the program is making an impression on young people to not drink and drive statewide.

"There is no way for us to quantify exactly how many lives we've changed but everybody who participates in this program knows how powerful it is and knows that it does make a difference," said Parsons.

In the 1990s the program was named after the statistic that drunk driving accounted for a road death or seriously injured person every 15 minutes in America. The statistics show fewer DUI deaths, now about one every 22 minutes.

"That may not sound like a lot (of a drop) but when you extrapolate it during the day instead of four being killed an hour, it moved up to three. That's a person an hour every day of the year that we've saving. We believe that it's because of this program."

Planning for Every 15 Minutes started in October and included the Ceres Fire Department, Ceres Police, AMR Ambulance, the California Highway Patrol, Memorial Medical Center and Medi-Flight, the Stanislaus County Coroner's office and Ceres ProTow with assistance of staff from the high school.

"If one person makes the right choice it's worth it," said Kathi Foster, one of the behind the scenes organizers.

Foster said the event was staged just days before the CVHS prom, a time when some teens are encouraged to engage in drinking.

Every 15 Minutes activities are funded by a $9,999 grant issued by the Office of Traffic Safety.

Other students who were among the walking wounded were juniors Aubrey Hancock, Geena Wade, Jagjeet Dool, Previe Uti, Alex Kirk, Jeffrey Chapman, Anthony Centeno, and Daniel Ochoa; and seniors Alyssa Long, Cherise Azevedo, Andrea Arellano, Shanice Stine, Allysen Wood, Alexis Cervera, Bryan Jimenez, Larry Hernandez, Matthew Avila, Casey Ashlock and Chris Lugo.