Modesto -- On Nov. 13, shattered glass and red asphalt surrounded the horrific scene of a staged car crash at Enochs High School in Modesto.
Some 1,200 students looked on as five of their friends and classmates were freed one by one from the bloody wreckage.
A helicopter descended, sending leaves and dirt swirling through the air as it rushed in to retrieve one of the badly injured high-schoolers. Two were taken away in an ambulance, another left the scene in a body bag. A lone survivor knelt at the edge of the chaos, staring in disbelief as paramedics and firefighters swarmed over the crumpled cars. She had been the driver and she had been drinking.
Every 15 minutes, someone dies from an alcohol-related collision. This stark statistic is the driving force behind the national Every 15 Minutes program, an educational effort created to remind us all of the dangers associated with driving while impaired by alcohol and telephone use.
This is Enochs High Schools' fifth time participating in the program, which it has done ever since it had its first senior class in 2009.
"I was part of the program at Davis High, where I taught before Enochs opened," said Debbie Adair, an Enochs English teacher who was one of the people responsible for organizing the event at the school. "When I heard they were interested in bringing the program here, I was one of the first people to leap on board."
Thirty students were selected to participate.
"We tried to choose students who are leaders in every group," said Sarah Mariano, student activities director at Enochs. "That way, even the students who aren't chosen feel a strong connection to the events in the program."
Five students were involved in the mock accident, and 25 more were taken out of their classes throughout the day by a grim reaper representing drunk driving. At the end of the day, all 30 students were taken to a hotel, where they spent the night with no phone or Internet access, so that they were unable to communicate with their friends while they were "dead."
"This is my fourth year coordinating all the 15 Minutes programs in Stanislaus County," said Eric Parsons, public information officer for the California Highway Patrol in Modesto. "The program is all about making good choices as you're becoming an adult, especially when it comes to getting behind the wheel of a car."
Message hits home
Every 15 Minutes takes place over the course of two days. The first day starts with the crash. Senior Amy Lee Mendoza, who played the drunk driver, was arrested on the scene after failing a number of field sobriety tests, including walking a line, which she performed in front of the entire school. She was taken to jail, where she was treated the same as a real drunk driving offender and spent time in the drunk tank.
Her parents, who came to the jail to visit her, were able to communicate only with the phones through the glass.
"Going to jail is horrible, it's the scariest thing I've ever done," Mendoza said. "I never want to be there again.
I'm definitely going to think even more carefully about how my future actions could affect myself and other people."
"I had to pretend I was dead," said senior Wilson Roehlk, who was the driver of the "sober" car and was taken away from the scene in a helicopter. "My parents came to identify me in the hospital, and they were pretty upset."
It is more than just the students who are shaken by the program. Their parents receive police visits and calls throughout the day regarding their students' deaths.
"I was expecting the phone call, so that was fine. It's when you get to the hospital and see your kid that it really hits you," said Sue Lodi, mother of junior Taylor Lodi, a student who was also taken to the hospital and later died. "(The experience) really heightens (drunk driving) awareness for both the parents and the kids, it really brings the message home."
Driving home a message
On the second day, the school held a funeral for the 30 students killed.
"It's the most emotionally touching part (of the program) for the audience that's watching because it makes them think about how they would feel if they lost someone in their life," Mariano said. "We also have a guest speaker come in who actually lost her brother in a drunk driving accident. So even though the students know it's all fake, they also get a taste of the reality. Students read letters to their families saying what they would have wanted to say if they got one last chance, and then the parents read (similar) letters to their kids. That's the part that gets the kids' attention; our goal is that that emotional connection lasts and makes them think, 'I shouldn't drink and drive because I might kill someone, I might kill myself.' "
Junior Alexis Shon had perhaps the most intense experience of them all. She was dead at the scene, lying face down on the hood of a battered car after being thrown through the windshield in the collision. She was zipped up in a body bag and taken to the coroner's office. "Seeing dead bodies was really hard," she said. "You see it a lot in movies and stuff
but actually seeing it in real life is very different."
"It's a very real experience for them," Mariano said. "The students who watch are usually touched pretty emotionally because their friends are involved." While the crash may be staged, the lasting effects of the program are genuine.
"The paramedics were really nice, but other than that, it was crazy," said senior Jackson Beruman, another victim of the crash. "It was scary
it was real."
Annie Mathews is a senior at Gregori High School and a member of The Bee's Teens in the Newsroom Program.