The scene — the aftermath of a crash involving a white Dodge Charger and a black Jeep Cherokee — was only a simulation, but it all looked eerily real.
One teenager was sprawled on the ground and others slumped in their smashed vehicles on Oak Grove Drive in front of La Cañada High School, their faces and bodies smeared with fake blood.
Officials from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and Fire Department, the California Highway Patrol and the county coroner’s office helped move the injured — portrayed by LCHS students — to safety and arrest an allegedly drunk driver.
Watching the recent scene unfold was the LCHS student body, whose members sat in bleachers where they were joined by officials for the La Cañada Unified School District and city of La Cañada Flintridge.
“It was effective,” LCHS junior Kyle Brown, 17, said last Thursday after the crash scene — part of a demonstration called Every 15 Minutes — was cleared. “It showed us the potential of what could happen if we make a mistake. Like the example they gave of drunk driving and how it could affect our lives and those around us. It just scared us into not making those mistakes.”
School officials said students appeared to understand the point of the exercise, held in conjunction with the sheriff’s and fire departments and the city.
“This is such a different experience from a regular assembly because the goal is to scare kids,” said LCHS Assistant Principal Jonathan Lyons. He felt it was an effective approach because all of the participants took it seriously.
“These kids were so good,” Lyons said. “They took it all in and really had some thoughtful insight on the impact this can have. I was really impressed with the work they did.”
LCHS Principal Jim Cartnal said the message was an especially important one for seniors, as they have a lot of events coming up, including graduation parties and prom.
The crash’s fictional back story was that the kids had all been at the same party where there was drinking, Lyons said. The Jeep, driven by a drunk driver, had smashed into the Charger driven by a sober student, officials said, and some of the victims hadn’t worn their seatbelts. Student William “Jake” George portrayed the Jeep driver whom authorities placed in custody.
Senior Sophie Garcia, 18, and a few others were dressed all in black and wore white and black face paint as they stood near a fire engine. Garcia described her role as one of the “walking dead” and said the program was unforgettable.
“We didn’t really get to see the scene, but just seeing Nicole Reynolds — she played the dead girl underneath the car — I got the chills right away because I didn’t know it would look so real,” Garcia said. “That hit me pretty hard, like, ‘Wow, this is really real right now.’ Just standing there and hearing everything and seeing how long it took, how crucial that hour can be. [Officials] said it was the golden hour. Just seeing how crucial that hour is because people were there in critical condition and could die quickly.”
Senior Phillip Welk portrayed a passenger trapped in the Charger’s back seat. He said Reynolds’ character was ejected from the vehicle.
“The person who was driving my car was the one who wasn’t drunk,” Welk, 17, said. “My role was I was just affected by the person who was drunk and caused the accident.”
Welk said he had seen the program two years ago and the experience of being involved was much different.
“The cops were banging on the door, like, ‘Hey, are you guys OK? Are you conscious in there?’” Welk said. “I wasn’t completely sure what they would even do. [Firefighters] came over and put this tarp over me and the person I was sitting next to and said, ‘You’re going to hear loud noises’ and they were ripping open the car. When I finally came out from under the tarp the entire car was dismantled and they were able to pull me out.”
He said he realized the intensity of the moment when fire personnel told him where to place his feet as they put him onto a stretcher.
“If I was really injured, that would freak me out 100 times more,” Welk said. “It already freaks me out that much.”
Fire Department Battalion Chief Michael McCormick provided narration as first responders arrived on the scene.
“Be in control at all times,” McCormick said. “The effects of driving under the influence and this happening could become a real quick reality.”
He also pointed out the dangers of racing and of texting or using social media while driving.
CHP Officer Vince Ramirez, who played the role of an arresting officer, said he hopes young people get the message that drinking and driving has serious consequences.
“We want kids to know that driving is a privilege,” Ramirez said. He added that April is Distracted Driver Awareness Month and that some young drivers’ practice of texting while driving is a serious issue — and forbidden.
“We’re enforcing it,” Ramirez said. “We see a lot of texting.”
Lyons was the administrator in charge of the program along with Tanya Wilson, LCHS’ head of security, and sheriff’s Deputy Eric Matejka. The first responders all donated their time, he said.
“It’s encouraging to see adults understand the importance of it and really get into the spirit of the whole thing,” Lyons said.
There were aspects of the production that the audience didn’t see, such as student participants going to the Crescenta Valley Sheriff’s Station, a nearby courthouse, a morgue and a local cemetery. However, the exercise continued the next day, when students attended a mock funeral and saw a video wrapping up the experience of the event.