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Staged Double Fatal Drama Yields Realistic Results
One by one, dozens of Escalon High School students were plucked out of class on Thursday morning, March 29.

Every 15 minutes, another classmate was taken.

The Grim Reaper came in, with his escorts reading an 'obituary' for the selected students - Jake Hood, Tish Martinez, Kelsey Hoot, Trey Balber among them - and the juniors and seniors involved in the school's realistic drinking and driving simulation were gone.

Not only for the day, but for the night and on in to the next day.

It's a realistic program that helps bring the dangers of drinking and driving to light, as the school prepares for its prom and graduation. The goal is to arm teens with information and challenge them to keep each other safe. (See Editor's Notebook, Page A7.)

An event that takes months to coordinate, with help and cooperation from the California Highway Patrol, Escalon Community Ambulance, Escalon Fire Department, Escalon Police Department, Public Works and the Office of Traffic Safety, the school presents the program every other year for the junior and senior classes.

"I hope they really think, and don't drink and drive anymore," said Tish Martinez.

"We need to make them realize the whole seriousness of the situation," agreed Jake Hood.

The separation for those in the program is real. Once the simulated car crash and ensuing rescue efforts are complete, the students taking part are sequestered, away from family and friends with no contact with them.

The crash scene itself is grimly real, with a trapped participant in one car making a frantic 911 call for help, the intoxicated driver crawling out of her overturned car to survey the scene with horror, bending down in anguish next to the lifeless body of her friend.

In a second car, damaged in the collision, two victims are able to get out themselves while two more are seriously injured. Rescue crews arrive on scene and begin their precision work, a helicopter is called in, and the 'living dead' students that were tapped out of class surround the scene silently as the rescue efforts continue.

The outcome of the crash: Gabrielle Jerome, dead on the scene; Gino Franceschetti, dead following resuscitation efforts at an area hospital; Phillip Kimble, paralyzed from the waist down, his years of being a three-sport athlete for the Cougars over. Intoxicated driver Jessica Redding - who wasn't very far 'over the line' in terms of legal intoxication - put on trial, convicted of two counts of second degree murder and sentenced to 30 years to life in prison.

'Walking Wounded' in the crash were Alec Anderson, riding in the vehicle with Jessica and Gabrielle, while Johnathon Costa and Joey Ratto were the other passengers in Gino Franceschetti's car.

The city shuts down Escalon-Bellota Road between Yosemite Avenue and Arthur Road to stage the realistic scene. Local fire, police and ambulance personnel devote extra time to the drama to add to the authenticity.

Students view the gripping drama, with commentary provided by retired San Joaquin County Sheriff's Department Lt. Chris Stevens, who discusses 'the golden hour' that often determines whether a victim in a crash lives or dies.

Throughout the production, he offers facts and figures about the dangers of drinking and driving, while he describes the rescue efforts unfolding.

Following the staged crash scene, one of the involved vehicles is moved to the school campus, placed next to the impromptu graveyard containing the headstones of the living dead tapped out of class earlier in the day.

Friday, the juniors and seniors are brought into the high school gym to watch a video of the accident scene they viewed the day before but it continues on, following the victims through to the hospital, seeing the response of the parents, watching as officers make a death notification to Gabrielle Jerome's mother, following Jessica Redding to jail and trial.

In the hospital, Gino Franceschetti's parents have to tell him goodbye.

"It was very emotional, a long day," admitted Gino's mom, Sherri Franceschetti. "I knew it was going to be hard but I couldn't sleep. I'm not a person that cries a lot, so I thought I would be okay. But when the doctor asked if we wanted to tell our son goodbye ... I fell apart. Just the thought of that..."

For senior Franceschetti, who was on a hospital gurney, eyes closed, he said hearing the doctor tell his mom to 'kiss your son goodbye' was an incredibly hard moment for him as well.

"I felt my mom kiss me on the forehead and I think I was almost in shock," Gino said, adding that it was simultaneously the best and worst experience he had ever been a part of, the best because of the message it conveyed, the worst because it seemed so real.

"I don't want that to happen to anybody," he said.

Friday's 'memorial ceremony' also included remarks from representatives of the justice system, an attorney who specializes in civil suits, emergency personnel and this year, the older sister of a 15-year-old from nearby Linden killed in a drunk driving crash. The teen was one day shy of her 16th birthday when she was killed.

"I can't explain to you how hard the heartbreak is," Melissa Webster said of losing her sister. "What does your family do at Christmas? Mine's at the cemetery. What do you do on Oct. 8? I visit my sister's grave. Oct. 9, her birthday, every year we light candles for her.

"It has been five years and I still cry every day."

Senior Jessica Redding, who portrayed the intoxicated driver, said knowing that split second decision to drive after drinking can have a profound and long-lasting impact changed her.

"It feels like I actually killed my best friend," Redding, 18, said, still emotionally shaken by the experience. "I want to be a better role model for my little brothers, help them make good decisions and be a good example for them."

Senior Austen Cardoza was one of those 'tapping out' the students during the day on Thursday.

"It gave me another perspective, this was really powerful," he said.

Key among the facts learned he added, was that it takes only 1.8 seconds to make the decision to get behind the wheel.

It's a decision, he said, that students can't take lightly.

Stevens summed up the program, noting that Escalon High School hasn't lost a teen student to drinking and driving in the eight years since Every 15 Minutes began in 2004.

"If you love your friends, Escalon, why would you let them die?" Stevens said. "The people in front of you changed the culture (at the school) and started watching out for each other.

"Take care of each other."