“It’s not just about death … it’s about life.”
That was the way Escalon High School senior Pietro Orlando summed up his view of the Every 15 Minutes program, played out on the EHS campus this past Thursday and Friday, March 3 and 4.
“I have a new perspective on what it means to live,” Orlando added.
The teen was one of ‘The Living Dead’ in the production, the black clad-ghostly face group that accompanied the Grim Reaper at a staged accident scene along Escalon-Bellota Road.
The crash on Thursday morning involved two vehicles, with one person dead on the scene, another taken to a nearby hospital by helicopter but dying there, and a third paralyzed in the crash. One other passenger escaped with minor injuries and the intoxicated driver who caused the crash was ultimately convicted of two counts of second degree murder, facing decades behind bars. A third vehicle with students came upon the crash scene and made the 9-1-1 call, which brought fire, police and ambulance crews to the scene.
As the juniors and seniors assembled for the mock DUI crash watched the scene unfold, emergency responders worked with efficiency, assessing the injuries on scene, working to free victims trapped in the wreckage of the vehicles and comforting those not hurt as best they could.
The goal of the program, organizers say, is to drive home the dangers of drinking and driving and, these days, any type of distracted driving, whether that comes from drinking, marijuana or other drug use, or cell phones, texting and driving.
Thursday’s scene saw friends Emily Vickers and Soleil Gouzenne come upon the crashed vehicles and call for help, with parent Danny Vickers also responding to the scene.
Filling the role of the intoxicated driver was Taylor Cullum; her actions claimed the lives of fellow seniors Tyler Medina – declared dead on the scene – and Mandy Murphy, passing away at the hospital. In her car, Cullum’s passenger Owen Nash was paralyzed as a result of the accident while passenger JP Lial was uninjured but traumatized as he saw his friends slipping away.
Serving as emcee for the accident scene was longtime San Joaquin County sheriff’s deputy/coroner Chris Stevens, now retired. He kept the hushed crowd informed of what was happening as emergency crews did their work during the so-called ‘golden hour’ – the time frame where, if you are seriously injured, getting you to a hospital is critical for survival.
Escalon Police, San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Department, CHP, Escalon Fire Department, and Escalon Community Ambulance all took part in the staged crash scene. A helicopter also flew in, landing adjacent to the Community Center a short distance from the crash site as the realistic depiction played out.
On scene, as Medina’s body was draped with a tarp, Cullum was given field sobriety tests and then taken into custody. Overcome with grief, Lial could only stare in disbelief as his friend and classmate lay on the cold, unforgiving asphalt.
That scene was just part of the program; on Friday an assembly was held for the juniors and seniors, as well as parents and some siblings of the students involved in this year’s Every 15 Minutes. That portion of the program included viewing a video of the events leading up to the crash, the scene itself, and following the different paths for those involved – to the hospital, the funeral home and a jail cell.
“Getting behind the wheel and driving is not a fixable mistake,” said San Joaquin County Superior Court Judge Tony Agbayani, addressing the crowd on Friday morning. “Please, make that good choice … listen to what we’re saying and live a good, long life.”
Acknowledging that underage drinking continues to happen, Stevens told the students to be smart, make a plan and take care of each other. Taking the keys away from an intoxicated friend, even letting the air out of their tires, are acceptable ways to help prevent tragedy, he said.
Attorney Mirko Kozina provided details of how he will sue, on behalf of his clients, for millions of dollars for pain and suffering as a result of a DUI crash.
And guest speaker Manuel Russ of Modesto, accompanied by his wife Kim and service dog Nahua, grabbed the attention of the crowd as he detailed being the victim in an early morning drunk driving incident several years ago. Not expected to recover, Russ said he heard the doctor telling his family members to “say their goodbyes” but he fought through and survived. Losing a leg and his sight, Russ said now he can only see his family in his memories.
“Turn my negative into your positive,” Russ said in asking students to be vigilant in the fight against drunk driving.
The program also included the reading of some letters, written by the parents and students involved the program.
“You are exactly the young man we wanted you to be,” dad Matt Anderson read in his letter to his son Logan, who was one of The Living Dead. “Being your father was the greatest thing I’ve ever done.”
Dad Nate Nash and mom Carrie Nash stepped up to the podium together, with Nate reading his letter to Owen.
“There will always be a hole in our hearts without your light,” he said.
Student Mandy Murphy thanked her parents for creating such a close knit family and offered a special message to her mom.
“You were more than a mother, you were my best friend and the epitome of a woman,” Mandy read. “My goal in this life was to be half the woman you are.”
Participating students were sequestered for the duration of the program, not going home after school on Thursday. They did a retreat while their parents also attended a special retreat, finally getting to reunite after the conclusion of the program on Friday.
Several law enforcement personnel also took the microphone at the assembly and detailed some incidents for students, with the overall message one of being smart and looking out for each other. Escalon lost several students to drunk driving incidents, including some in the early 1990s.
“It was very real,” admitted Taylor Cullum, who spent the Friday assembly in her orange jail jumpsuit, handcuffed and shackled. “Once they pulled the tarp (off the crash vehicles) everything hits you and you don’t even think that you’re in a scene, it all just seems so real.”
And as Stevens told students in the assembly, it’s not something that always happens to ‘the other guy’ – he was five when his father died in a drunk driving incident; nine when his 19-year-old brother was killed in a DUI crash and 16 when his uncle, his dad’s younger brother, was killed by a drunk driver.
“I’ve been the other guy three times,” an emotional Stevens told the crowd, adding that Escalon High hasn’t lost a student to a DUI crash since the Every 15 Minutes program started here, offered every two years since 2004.
“Keep the momentum going,” Stevens urged. “I love you guys … take care of each other.”