MODESTO — Gregori High School's year of firsts continued Thursday, though hardly in a celebratory way. As the first senior class approaches the school's first commencement ceremony and the parties that accompany it Gregori got its first visit from the Every 15 Minutes program.
Once students were in their classrooms, first-responders and other organizers of the DUI-awareness program poured in to begin setting up a two-car mock crash in front of the school. With his patrol car blocking Pirrone Road west of the scene, California Highway Patrol officer Aaron Keller was watching the progress.
"It's absolutely the best program set up for kids about alcohol," he said of Every 15 Minutes, a nationwide organization whose mission is to prevent drug- and alcohol-related accidents. Calling the program "intense," Keller noted that it's even more so at Gregori because the accident was realistically staged on Pirrone. At most high school campuses, the drama unfolds on a football field or other grassy area, he said, detracting a bit from the visual impact.
The tone at the crash staging was professional, but not without its lighthearted moments. Gregori Principal Jeff Albritton and campus supervisor Ray Hickman realized that the ultra-realistic DUI scene was missing a crucial element: empty beer cans. Hickman leapt into action, calling his brother Tony Stanfill, district manager for Boyett Petroleum, to swing by one of the company's Cruisers convenience stores. "I told him, 'I need you to do a beer run for me,' " Hickman said with a smile.
A makeup artist from Daydreams & Nightmares costume shop was toting real cattle intestines, offering folks a chance to squeeze the squishy Ziploc bag. The sound guy sounded like he was having fun testing the PA system with his outdoor voice, indoor voice and high-pitched, teen-girl-calling-for-help voice. And senior Justin Brown, who'd be playing a victim, was happily showing off the gory compound fracture the Daydreams artists applied to his leg using real cattle bone, he noted.
But fellow victim Brielle Henderson, also a senior, already was getting in character, without intending to. Made up to look like she was injured all over, including glass shards protruding from her face, Brielle said the power of the impending presentation really hit her when she came out to the roadway, where patrol cars, fire engines, ambulances and other emergency response vehicles were gathered at the crash site.
"It's very emotional, but I feel good that I will tell a lesson to the whole senior class. I hope they get the message and that I portray it well." She paused, then added, "I'm already crying, and I'm paralyzed" her crash-victim character, that is "so I can't dry my tears."
Once the crash scene and its victims were covered with parachute material and the Gregori seniors were walked out to the seating area at the front of the school, the atmosphere turned deathly serious.
Albritton told the teens he has a great track record in that no student he's known has died in a DUI crash. But the truth is that statistics show that "your age group is at great risk," he said. The Every 15 Minutes program takes its name from the statistic that every 15 minutes, someone is killed as the result of an alcohol-
Moments before the crash scene was unveiled, it came to life and death. Over the PA system, the crowd heard senior Mayette Figuracion, one of the crash survivors, make a call to a 911 dispatcher. In an anguished voice, she said where the accident occurred and pleaded for help.
As the draping was removed from the cars, she and other survivors threw themselves into their characters, initially staggering about, injured and stunned, then checking on friends' conditions.
Emergency vehicles, which had left the scene before the students came out, quickly arrived with sirens blaring and lights flashing. Firefighters and medical personnel attended to the injured and dying. Firefighters removed the roof and doors from one of the cars to extract teens trapped inside. Law-enforcement officers assessed the scene, calmed the injured, gathered information and determined the crash to be DUI-related, ultimately taking a driver into custody.
Save for a player dressed as the Grim Reaper and gliding around on in-line skates, the scene was as authentic as it gets, and the Gregori seniors sat or stood transfixed. No snickers, no smiles.
Actingwise, the heavy lifting fell to Figuracion, who was convincingly distraught. She sobbed, she had to be held back as she tried to rush to other victims. It wasn't a stretch for her, she said afterward.
"I lost my best friend in a car crash two years ago," she explained. It wasn't a DUI-related crash, and she wasn't on the scene, "but I got the call right when it happened, and I saw pictures.
"Just seeing Miranda (Coombs), Justin and Brielle the way they are, it's very gruesome and it brought back a lot of it. I thought this would be hard, and I think that's why they picked me. I can honestly say it wasn't acting. I really felt it."
Bee local news editor Deke Farrow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2327.