His emotions, he said, were doing ‘backflips’ as he listened to the chaos going on around him.
Escalon High School senior Wyatt Cockrell, one of two students who ‘died’ as the result of an alcohol-related crash staged Thursday for the Every 15 Minutes program for Escalon and Vista high schools, said it was a surreal experience that felt all too real.
He was the passenger in a vehicle that overturned along Escalon-Bellota Road, driven by ‘drunk’ driver and classmate Michael Medina. In the grisly scenario that unfolded on the roadway in front of stands full of high school juniors and seniors, teachers, parents and some siblings of the students involved, Cockrell had been thrown from the vehicle and died at the scene. He said afterward that, since he had to keep his eyes closed throughout the drama – played out in real time with the arrival of police, ambulance and fire personnel – the experience was unique, and a bit heart-wrenching.
“It’s indescribable,” Cockrell said, hearing his classmates responding to the carnage they saw once the dust cleared from the two-car high speed collision. Cockrell, Medina and Trenton Busch were all in the overturned vehicle, while driver Taylor Laugero with passengers Laura Brasil and Josie Redberg, were in the other car involved. Brasil, classified as a ‘walking wounded’ at the scene, later went into cardiac arrest and was pronounced ‘dead’ at a Modesto hospital. Laugero, unconscious on scene, was taken by helicopter to the hospital and survived, but the crash left her ‘paralyzed’ from the waist down – putting an end to the senior’s college volleyball career before it started.
Medina was given field sobriety tests on scene and determined to be under the influence of alcohol; he was subsequently arrested and booked. Later, at trial, he was convicted in the deaths of Cockrell and Brasil and sentenced to 30 years to life in prison. Busch and Redberg were lucky enough to escape with relatively minor injuries.
“I felt Michael crawl out of the car over me,” Cockrell said of the scene opening up. “When Trent bent down and put his head on my chest, I could feel him sobbing, I almost lost it. Then Josie picked up my hand, and it was like my emotions were doing backflips, I wanted to tell them I was okay, but I couldn’t.”
The scene is staged as realistically as possible for the Every 15 Minutes program, with longtime narrator, retired San Joaquin County deputy Chris Stevens at the microphone. He sets up the scene, noting that “Every 15 minutes, someone is killed or injured in an alcohol-related crash” and then the tarps come off as the 9-1-1 call is played, indicating the details of the accident.
The realistic depiction, down to the blood, glass shards and debris on the roadway, cuts and bruises to the victims and the response of the emergency personnel, transports the audience into the middle of the scene.
“You did this Michael!” Josie Redberg screamed at her classmate, frantically trying to get Cockrell to wake up and rushing between the vehicles to also check on Laugero, unresponsive behind the wheel of her SUV.
Head in his hands, Medina was inconsolable, saying he didn’t mean to do it, that it wasn’t supposed to happen.
For police on the scene, his apology wasn’t enough, as he was taken into custody after failing the field sobriety tests.
Stevens likened the accident to ripples on a lake, once the water is initially disturbed.
“An alcohol-related crash, a tragedy that’s entirely preventable, is like that,” he added. “The ripples go on for years and years.”
Stevens, who was among those that originally brought the Every 15 Minutes program to Escalon in 2004 said that, in the 40 years prior to that, the school lost 47 students – more than an average of one per year – to alcohol-related incidents. The program has been put on every other year since, with 2016 being the seventh time it has been done. It is played out for the junior and senior classes, coinciding typically with prom season, and since that 2004 inaugural program, no EHS or Vista high school students have died in crashes related to alcohol.
Along with the Thursday accident scene, the program includes an overnight retreat for students involved, those in the scene and those that are the Living Dead, some of them tapped out of class on Thursday morning by The Grim Reaper. Their ‘obituaries’ are read as they are taken out of class and headstones were placed in a graveyard near the quad on campus.
The students are cut off from contact with their parents, friends and other family members for the duration of the program.
Irene Laugero, who has served for the past several years with Debbie Murken and Cathy Pinheiro as the main coordinators of the program, had a different experience this year, with daughter Taylor the paralyzed driver.
“It was difficult, I now have a much better understanding of the parents we send to the hospital,” she said of being part of the process this year. “This is one of the programs I support 100 percent, I can see how some way, we are making a difference. But it’s the kids that are carrying on that tradition.”
Laugero, who also gave a ‘shout out’ to waterproof mascara, said the program is such an emotionally-charged event for all involved. But the main goal – keeping kids safe – has been a message that so far has been received.
Stevens offered some tips on making sure classmates stay safe, whether it is serving as a designated driver, taking the keys from a buddy, or using a key to legally let the air out of someone’s tires or blocking in their car to keep them from driving.
Parents of students involved have a parent retreat on Thursday night as well and both parents and students write letters to each other, as if they did not have a chance to say ‘goodbye.’
A representative of Mothers Against Drunk Driving – MADD – addressed the parents at their retreat, telling how she lost her 18-year-old daughter, her best friend, when she was struck by a drunk driver.
The Friday portion of the program included an assembly for the juniors and seniors with a mock funeral, guest speakers including a judge, defense attorney and this year, a teacher from a neighboring school district who was paralyzed in a drunk driving crash. He was the driver, and the only one in the vehicle.
For the families of those involved, it was a tough 24 hours.
“I survived,” Tina Cockrell, Wyatt’s mom, said on Friday following the program. “But just barely.”
Younger sister Taylor said “it was horrible” to get through the event but agreed with her mom that it was a worthwhile experience.
“It’s just so emotional,” admitted EHS principal Dave Lattig, whose son Sam was a member of the Living Dead. “You know it’s fake but it just rips your heart out.”
Junior Nahlia Yefet was among the Living Dead and she said she also learned a great deal.
“It was really life changing,” she said. “Partying is something I’ve never really done personally but it makes you aware, it has changed my perspective and I want to be accountable.”
She said she will pass the message and knowledge on to her friends and will be accountable to them, helping keep them safe.
A theme throughout was for students to make smart choices and to watch out for each other, to make sure they get through Prom and Graduation season safely, along with playing it safe when they go out.
Laugero praised the students involved and said she was grateful for the parent support, since the program couldn’t happen without it. The CHP, local police, fire and ambulance, San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Department and the Office of Traffic Safety were among the other organizations helping to put on the Every 15 Minutes program.
“Remind yourselves how much you love each other,” Stevens said in summing up. “We should not live in a world of regrets.”