Just in time for the holidays, an estimated 900 juniors and seniors of Central Valley High School had ring side seats Thursday morning to a simulated drunk driving crash designed to shock them into the reality that drinking and driving can have dire consequences.
The event was timed at the start of the holiday season in which lots of celebrations take place surrounding alcoholic beverages.
"Do you know how many people are partying on the holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas?" said CVHS activities director Kristin Lilly-Porter. "And it's a family boozing event."
She said the event always has a significant impact on kids' choices to drink and drive, especially for the 25 students who play a role in the event.
"The 25 that we select say it is life changing, not only for them but for their families because their whole family is involved."
The "actors" in the Every 15 Minutes program were high school peers, some of whom played injured or dead car crash victims.
Grandstands were filled at 9:30 a.m. around the mock crash site on a closed-off section of Service Road north of the CVHS campus. The artificially bloodied body of Ashley Del Valle lie still on the pavement, a stream of fake blood flowing from open skull wounds.
A loud shot set off the drama, prompting a frantic and dazed Naomi Torres to begin her heart-wrenching reaction to being a surviving passenger in the deadly crash caused by drunk driver player Angelo Bermudez. Torres first checked on the mortally wounded Del Valle and then began screaming at Bermudez in anger for causing the carnage. Inside the two mangled cars were "deceased" students Edward Maffei and Alexis Villa.
The drama was cued by a realistic 9-1-1 call played over the loud speaker. A siren began wailing in the background as motorcycle patrolmen Jason Coley and Keith Kitcher drew near as the first to arrive to assess the dead and dying. In moments the scene was a flurry of emergency workers and police officers. Students watched in silence as victims were cut from the wreckage by Ceres firefighters using the Jaws of Life, then triaged by AMR ambulance paramedics and the dead scooped up by an actual coroner's van. Coley then "arrested": Bermudez for a DUI investigation and conducting field sobriety tests on the driver.
Because of thick fog, Medi-Flight was unable to be utilized in the demonstration. Typically the chopper is used to pick up a seriously injured student to Memorial Medical Center.
During the exercise, foreboding "grim reapers" played by Ceres officers walked around the macabre 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 students were then eulogized at Friday morning's somber simulated funeral for the victims.
The program began Thursday morning before the simulated crash when numerous other students were "tapped out" by The Grim Reaper. During the course of the day, the specter of death visited classrooms every 15 minutes to take another student to represent a DUI death every 15 minutes in the nation. A brief obituary of the student was read as they silently left the classroom. Students who were tapped out were. They 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 stay the night at a location for a retreat on Thursday, not being allowed to go home. The experience was intended to magnify the feelings of the loss and separation. They participated in team building exercises and a candlelight vigil as well as write goodbye letters to their families.
Parents gather at a parent retreat where they heard from guest speakers and also wrote letters to their "departed" loved one. Some were read at the Friday's "funeral" assembly in which juniors and seniors also viewed a heart-wrenching video of the accident scenario, followed by the aftermath - seeing victims taken to the hospital or morgue - and watching the reaction of parents who were told their child was severely injured or dead.
Billy Bob Muirhead was among police chaplains who made visits to parents of "victims" to make a death notification at homes or work places.
At the retreat, students shared ways they can reach their peers who are engaged in risky behavior, including texting while driving as well as drinking.
"This amazing program truly affects all involved," said Kathi Foster, one of the behind the scenes organizers. "And in speaking for all those that give their time, if by creating this program we can make just one person make a different choice and save their own life or the life of another, all the effort is worth it."
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.
Ceres Fire Department, Ceres Police, AMR Ambulance, the California Highway Patrol, Memorial Hospital and Memorial Medi-Flight and Stanislaus County Coroner's office were among those involved in putting on the program, with assistance of staff from both high schools.
Every 15 Minutes activities are funded by a grant issued by the Office of Traffic Safety.
Students involved in the two-day exercise were Emanuel Alvarez, Jorge Alvarez, Adrian Badillo, Sandra Vega, Andrew Brekke, Jorge Bustos, Antonio "Alex" Centeno, Andrew Dias, Tatiana Gamboa, Tyra Grant, Princess Marianne Pe, Elena Zaragoza, Ciara Asefi, Aileen Brambila, Nina Martinez, Lucero Ramos, Rachel Fischer and Emilio Rameno.