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Mock crash drives anti-DUI message
An estimated 800 juniors and seniors from Ceres High School had ring side seats Thursday morning to a simulated drunk driving crash designed to shock into them the reality that drinking and driving can have dire life-changing consequences.

The "actors" in the Every 15 Minutes program were their own 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 Central Avenue near the CHS staff parking lot. The artificially bloodied body of Dylan Hines lie still on the pavement, a stream of fake blood flowing from massive skull wounds. Laying on the hood of a car, partially ejected through a windshield, was Ceres High School student Ryan Ramirez, who was alive but barely.

A loud shot set off the drama, prompting a "wounded" Megan Braverman to begin her frantic heart-breaking reaction to being in the crash caused by drunk driver player Jessie Hidahl. She began screaming at Hidahl in anger for causing the carnage. Inside one of the two mangled cars was wounded student Tori Gunzenhauser who became a paraplegic.

The drama was cued by a realistic 9-1-1 call played over the loud speaker. A siren began waling in the background as motorcycle patrolman Trinidad Viramontes was one of 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 as victims were cut from the wreckage by Ceres firefighters using the jaws of life, then treated by AMR ambulance paramedics. Officers began interviewing victims and conducting field sobriety tests on the driver.

The most critically injured patient, Ramirez was whisked away in a Medi-Flight helicopter which landed a block away and flew to Memorial Medical Center where real life trauma crash victims were being triaged.

During the exercise, foreboding "grim reapers" played by Ceres officers Pat Dayton and Jeremy Lewis, 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. Playing the living dead were Gabriel Balderas,Timothy Cardelli, Alejandra Castillo, Jordan Cervantez, Ian Couture, Karli Gleason, Isaiah Henry, Colby Nicholes, Whitney Oliveira and Sergio Zepeda.

"The impact of this, even though it is simulated, has profound effects on all involved, and the message of 'do not drink and drive' has a longer-lasting impact on everyone who participates or views the program," said Chief of Police Art deWerk, who delivered an address at the Friday funeral.

"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."

"It's powerful and it works," said Eric Parsons, Public Information officer for the California Highway Patrol, one of the agencies involved in the program. "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."

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.

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 Ivette Baeza, Daishawn Bailey, Hailey Fisicaro, Austin Mantarro Moore, Viviana Ramirez, Adam Ramos and Marisa Solis. 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.

Ceres Christian Church Pastor Dave Broyles was among police chaplains who made visits to parents of "victims" to make a death notification at homes or work places.

"Even though you know it's fake it is so hard to do," said Broyles. "It just seems so real."

Many of those participating said it had an impact on them and, based on the reaction of students in the crowd watching the accident scene, it affected many of the spectators as well.

"This event, to me, was exceptionally well done by the kids," said Kim Chapman, who helped with the planning starting six years ago and at the event. "I think it had to do with the fact that a few were tight-knit friends. That helped for a really strong student retreat. It was very real reaction by the kids."

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.

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.

Parsons said that he's helping to organize 10 Every 15 Minutes programs in the Stanislaus County area. Ceres was the second one this season, followed by Johansen.

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