Staged crash hammers home DUI message at Modesto School
The gurney bearing a body bag was wheeled to where Kurt and Jennifer Polack stood quietly in the Stanislaus County Coroner's Office. Deputy Tom Killian unzipped the white bag and showed the couple the bloodied, broken face and head of their son, Beyer High School senior Ben Polack.
Jennifer buried her face in her husband's chest and sobbed. Kurt looked at his son, then away, then at Ben again to confirm his identity.
Ben was only pretending to be dead. And his parents knew it. But seeing him in that body bag, gruesome makeup adding to the effect, their reaction was real.
"That's how impactful this is," Kurt Polack said, speaking of the Every 15 Minutes program. "You know going in it's not real, and wondering if you can be a good actor, and you don't have to act. It hits you hard."
Hard as it was for the Polacks to look down at Ben in the morgue, so was it for him not to react. "Probably the worst feeling in my life. ... I wanted to look at her and give her a hug and a kiss," he said of his mom.
Every 15 Minutes is the result of the partnership between the California Highway Patrol and other local law enforcement, hospitals, emergency medical responders, schools, businesses and service clubs.
Beyer typically has presented the program to its juniors and seniors every other year. Earlier this school year, it informed the CHP it would not be able to do so this spring because of staffing vacancies. It later reversed course and offered it Tuesday and Wednesday.
The first day began with students on bleachers behind the school buildings, a tarp-covered crash scene before them. When the tarps were removed, they watched their classmates act out a nightmare scenario:
A senior who got behind the wheel after having several beers broadsided a car carrying three classmates. His friend and passenger was ejected through the windshield and died at the scene. Two girls in the front seat of the car he hit died later at hospitals.
The drunk driver and another friend — a girl riding in the back seat of the car he hit — watched helplessly as firefighters and medical responders worked to free their trapped friends and keep them alive.
As soon as the drama began to unfold, the audience fell mostly silent. There was some hushed talking, but more noticeable were the sounds of crying. Even talking afterward about what she'd seen, senior Hailey Weltmer was fighting back tears. She said she's pretty close to all those playing roles, and "it was all surreal. ... You go into it thinking of course it's not real, like you're not going to cry as much. But then when you actually see it happen, it's very emotional and it hits you very hard."
Fellow senior Holly Mahnke said there were no words to describe how awful it felt to see Ben, her best friend since kindergarten, laid out on the hood of a car, and her boyfriend, Austin Schott, portraying the driver who killed him.
Glancing around at her classmates during the crash enactment, she noticed, "there wasn't a dry eye there, and how quiet it was because people were so in awe of, wow, this really happens. All it takes is for me to have a drink, two drinks, go out in the car. I could be Austin, I could be Ben."
Long after the student spectators returned to class, Every 15 Minutes continued at various spots around town, with a video production team in tow. Austin was jailed. Ben rode in the back of the coroner's van. Macy McCormick and True Virchis "died" after lifesaving attempts at the crash scene and hospitals. Their fellow passenger and uninjured survivor, Cathryn Starck, was tearfully reunited with her family.
Wednesday morning, the program wrapped up with a gym assembly, where students watched the video and heard participants and their parents share gut-wrenching farewell letters as if they'd truly lost each other.
"It's a very good program," Holly said, "and I'm glad we were able to have it come to Beyer."
So was Ben, who had no doubt the anti-DUI message was going to stick with him and his classmates. As he played dead on the pavement Tuesday, he said, he thought about "all the people this program's going to hit. They're gonna feel it. I felt it. Just laying there hearing everyone sob and sniffle and cry, it definitely hit me."
Beyer Principal Dan Park said he again was reminded of the power of Every 15 Minutes "as I watched nearly 800 students sit in near total silence for an extended period of time watching the first responders work with the injured and dying students at the crash scene. These were peers watching peers facing some of the most difficult times in life — death and traumatic injuries."