O’NEALS – The Grim Reaper helped deliver a sobering message Wednesday at Minarets High School as part of the ‘Every 15 Minutes’ program, in which students and first responders reenact the aftermath of a horrific car crash caused by a drunk driver.
The Reaper and his gallery of “walking dead” students stood silently on the sidelines as the drama unfolded, surrounded by nearly 500 Minarets students.
Wednesday’s event started with a “fire drill.” Students walked single-file out of school and regrouped around the perimeter of the gory “crash” site, which included mangled victims and vehicles, empty beer cans falling out of a pickup as the “drunk driver” opens his door, and lots of “blood.”
Some started the program fidgeting with their phones or stifling giggles but nearly an hour later when Principal Daniel Ching announced that a “funeral” for the “dead” student will be held the next morning, most of the students were somber, silent and very reflective.
The Every 15 Minutes program, which was first held at Minarets four years ago, is presented with deadly seriousness. CHP officers, sheriff’s deputies, firefighters and EMS all respond to the scene as though it were a real fatal crash.
The participants are mic’ed for sound so that everyone can hear the firefighters report “one confirmed 1144” (deceased person), and the anguished cries of a young woman whose brother “died” in the head-on crash.
As the injured are assessed and transported and the “dead” teen is covered with a tarp, the at-fault driver is interviewed, put through a field sobriety test, made to blow into a breathalyzer, and then handcuffed and arrested.
A group of Minarets seniors — Crystal Hernandez, Adriana Padilla, Nicole Barrios and Sophia Mendosa — organized the program as part of their Senior Legacy Experience project.
Barrios called drunk driving “a big issue” for today’s teens. “We chose this as our project because we thought if we could start educating kids at a young age about it, maybe it will make a difference,” Barrios said.
Hernandez agreed. “We wanted to do something that would send a strong message,” she said.
Six months of preparation went into the program, which was coordinated by the California Highway Patrol Oakhurst Area and also included personnel and equipment from the Madera County Sheriff’s Office, Cal Fire, Sierra Ambulance and SkyLife, which flew in one of its helicopters to airlift out the most seriously “injured” crash victims.
A 20-minute, student-produced video of Wednesday’s program was scheduled to be screened at an all-school “funeral” Thursday morning in the school auditorium. The video includes scenes of the parents being notified and being taken to see their dead children at the hospital, followed by the court procedures and sentencing.
“Honestly, I think some people take this as a joke,” Minarets senior Marcus Centell said after watching Wednesday morning’s program. “Me, I’ve never been a drinker and I never will.”
“Drinking and DUI is a big thing nowadays,” Centell added. “A lot of people are dying because of drunk driving. It’s really sad.”
“This is not a natural thing for the kids to see but it gets their attention,” Ching said.
Since the Every 15 Minutes program was first established, the number of DUI deaths has actually decreased nationally to “about one every hour,” said CHP Officer Luis Lugo, who “investigated” the incident and arrested the “drunk driver.”
Still, he added, DUI remains a serious danger for area teens.
After the program ended and the fake blood was wiped away, the young actors took part in a “retreat” with first responders at Skywalk in Madera.
“We want to give them the opportunity to decompress and share their feelings,” Lugo said.
Minarets Counselor Claudia vanDenBergh helped students stage the mock-accident and Minarets Charter School Director Patrick Wilson assisted in the direction of the student-made video documenting the event.
The cast of student “crash victims” participating in Wednesday’s program included Austin Boomer, Julian Rocha, Madalynn Rocha, Mandi Villanueva, Jordan Tuttle and Sabrina Lanfranco.
The $6,000 two-day program is funded by a grant from the California Office of Traffic Safety through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
(Photos by Gina Clugston)