One Oak Ridge student lay dead, ejected from the vehicle her best friend drove seconds before. Only the frantic wails of a second passenger could be heard as she called her best friends’ names from the back seat, pleading for them to answer.
The teenage drunk driver, also an Oak Ridge student, got out of his car to survey the scene, unscathed and unaware his own passenger and best friend was dead too.
Every painstaking detail of the accident last Tuesday morning in front of Oak Ridge High School was chronicled before silent upperclassmen, including a helicopter landing to life flight the female driver to Marshall Hospital, where she would later die from her injuries.
Within minutes police cars raced up Harvard Way, which was closed for more than an hour as first responders surveyed the scene, tended to victims and then interrogated the underage drunk driver.
Unlike TV dramas, there were no edits. Approximately 1,000 Oak Ridge juniors and seniors sat roadside and witnessed every detail, including tagging and then body bagging the deceased.
Every 15 Minutes someone dies as a result of an alcohol-related collision. The core of the California Highway Patrol-sponsored program is “The crash is staged, yet the emotions are real.” The 35 Oak Ridge students chosen to take part were not injured, but they were certainly emotionally rattled.
Oak Ridge has offered Every 15 Minutes every other year for 20 years, according to Oak Ridge Assistant Principal and site coordinator Ron Thomas in an interview with Village Life. “It is a powerful program since it is so realistic and so many individuals in the community get involved,” he said. “It really does become a huge production that’s captured in such a real way it causes our students to reflect on what they’re doing. In hopes of making better decisions we always hold it right before prom. We know historically students in general don’t always make great decisions during those times.”
Oak Ridge’s prom was held three days later.
“It’s a great reminder not only to individuals who choose to drink and drive but also the victims,” Thomas continued. “We chronicle the entire plight of an individual who decides to hop in a car after drinking — not only what happens during the time of the crash but everything that happens after. Being incarcerated, the legal system, the effect it has on his friends and family members and our entire learning community.”
Thomas said he and Oak Ridge staff members Marcia Moya and Jill Howard spent more than six months planning this year’s production. “Every other year we sit with some parent volunteers and our partners at the CHP and fire department and start over,” he said.
Asked about distracted driving crashes in recent years becoming as big a problem as drunk driving, Thomas said, “Yes, we’ve been talking about that this year. We may have the conversation in two years to see if we can incorporate the distracted driving next time.”
The CHP is the lead agency for managing Every 15 Minutes. When asked the same question, Commander Craig Root from the CHP’s Placerville unit said they plan to keep their sole focus on drunk driving prevention now and in the future. “When you incorporate all kinds of bad driving decisions, it loses its focus,” he said. Instead he noted other driving programs the CHP offers.
Nine students stood silently by with the Grim Reaper during the accident scene. Every 15 minutes during that school day a CHP officer called someone out of class to join the “Walking Dead.” By the end of the school day 30 names were called. Parents were notified their children fell victim to an incident of drinking and driving. The eerily realistic parent-written obituaries were read to classes and students were taken to a retreat center for the night and were “dead” to the world until the next morning.
Thomas said the 30 students were carefully chosen to reflect the various groups on campus so everyone would be affected.
During the overnight retreat students wrote letters to their parents and their parents did the same. Junior Celeste Carle was “Walking Dead” and said what struck her most was how many students shared personal stories of being impacted by drinking or distracted driving.
“I also kept thinking about my 7-year-old sister when I wrote my letter and kept thinking how much she’d be affected if I really died,” she said.
Celeste’s mother Julia was most rattled by the chaplain coming to her house to announce Celeste’s “death.”
“Even though you know it’s not real, you can’t prepare yourselves for those words,” she told Village Life. “They were completely professional like it would be.”
Later, Celeste’s phone, which she had to leave home, pinged with texts and calls, her friends never knowing she’d agreed to the elaborate plan. “Where are you?” some texts read. “That really hit me as well,” said Julia.
“We go so far as to have a candlelight vigil for all of the individuals that ‘die’ that day,” said Thomas.
The next morning a memorial assembly pieced everything together. Students saw a 30-minute film chronicling before, during and after the crash. The two males who drove the second car were at a party. After drinking and passing out, they woke the next morning and thought they’d “slept it off.”
Viewers also see what happened to the victims at the hospital and watch their actual parents being told the shocking news. The program also follows what happened to the perpetrator later at the El Dorado County courthouse. The organizers go to great lengths to make it as realistic for students as possible.
Later in the assembly some students read their goodbye letters to their parents and parents read letters too.
“The letters were the most powerful part to me,” said senior Danielle Stein, 18, who watched from the bleachers. “It made you think about what you would write to your own parents if you knew you wouldn’t be able to see or talk to them again.”
Guest speakers also spoke about loved ones they’d lost to drunk driving.
“The thing that impacted me most was when a mom got up and talked about her son (a recent Ponderosa graduate) who died in a car accident,” said senior Aaron Taylor, 18. “His friend was drunk driving and rolled the car on White Rock Road and two of the passengers died, including her son.”
Korina Grava, 17, couldn’t get that off her mind either. “The mother was shaking while telling the story,” she said. “It impacted me because one of our family friends was hit by a drunk driver and she and her family were seriously injured in the crash.”
“It’s not just a sad movie,” said Celeste. “The car accident on its own wouldn’t have had the same impact as everything together had.”
“It takes everybody to make this happen every other year,” said CHP public information officer Quinn Cuthbertson. “It takes the entire community to make this successful.”
They did the same at Union Mine in early April.
The Every 15 Minutes website states that after the two-day program students are less likely to drive when drinking; less likely to be a passenger with a driver who had been drinking; more likely to talk with their own parents about drinking and more likely to choose not to drink.
The efforts were exhaustive, but Principal Paul Burke said it’s worth it. “Thank you to all the organizations involved in making this day happen,” he said. “The impact it has on our students is profound.”
(Information provided by the Vision Coalition of El Dorado Hills)