OSWEGO, NY – Members of the Oswego High School junior class sat through a gruesome presentation Friday to help stop them from making what could be a fatal mistake on prom night, graduation day and beyond.
A mock drunk driving accident was staged in the school parking lot. Several teens were “injured.”
One young woman, partially ejected from her vehicle, her severed arm was on the ground a few feet away from the wrecked vehicles, was dead – the innocent victim of a drunk driver.
It had taken about two minutes for emergency crews to respond. But, for the “victims,” it seemed like it was forever.
In the city, it takes emergency crews a couple minutes to respond to most calls, said Cathy McPherson a member of the county’s STOP-DWI program, the narrator and guide for the viewers. Out in the county, it could be as much as 15 to 20 minutes before anybody gets to you, she added.
As the students gazed at the tableau of wrecked vehicles, smoke, shattered glass, bloodied victims and “dead” body in the parking lot they heard a grim pronouncement.
“Studies have shown us that it takes less than one second for you to die in a car crash,”
In the first tenth of a second, the front bumper and grill collapse.
In the second tenth, the hood crumbles; rises and strikes the windshield, and spinning rear wheels lift off the ground. At the same time, fenders begin wrapping themselves around any object that the car comes in contact with. The car’s frame has been stopped, but its occupants are still moving.
In the third tenth, the steering wheel starts to disintegrate. The steering column aims for the driver’s chest.
In the fourth tenth of a second, the first two feet of the car gone, the rear end is still moving at 35 mph.
In the fifth tenth, the driver is impaled on the steering column and their lungs rupture.
In the sixth tenth, the impact is to the point where the driver’s feet are ripped out of tightly laced shoes. Their knees and the bones below their knees snap.
In the seventh tenth of a second the hinges on the doors and the hood rip loose. The back of the seat comes ripped out of the floor of the car and slams into the back of the driver.
“That’s in the seventh tenth of a second; but the driver really doesn’t mind, because at that point, they’re dead. And that’s not a high-speed crash,” McPherson said. “That’s a crash at 55 mph.
The students listened as a PA system blared the 911 call. Some were startled at the sound of sirens as police cars arrived on the scene followed by two fire department ambulances and a fire truck in case one of the damaged vehicles ignited.
McPherson quizzed the students about what they’d do if they had been drinking or the person who they were riding with had been drinking. Some of the answers included stay at the (party), walk, call for a ride, and take the keys away from the driver.
Everything was treated as if it was a real crash, according to Bob Lighthall Oswego County Stop-DWI coordinator.
“This sends a message to the kids but it also provides us an opportunity for some training,” he said. “If we get through to one kid, it’s all worth it.”
The “drunk driver” staggered around. Police officers gave her a field sobriety test, and when she failed, they took her into custody and charged her with DWI. A felony charge of second-degree vehicular manslaughter was added later at her arraignment in front of Oswego City Court Judge James Metcalf.
The deceased was removed from the hood of her vehicle because emergency crews needed to remove the roof of the vehicle to get to the victims still inside, McPherson explained.
“Because of the force of the crash, the doors will not open and we have someone with a very serious back injury in the backseat,” she said.
The “deceased” was covered with a white sheet. If it were a real accident the body would remain there, perhaps for hours, as the crash investigators reconstructed what happened.
The EMTs were all working on the living victims. They treat the deceased with great respect, but there is no sense of urgency, Lighthall pointed out. “They are doing what they can to help the living.”
When the victims have been taken away, investigators remain trying to find the cause of the crash; the deceased’s body might still be there for a while as well. On Friday morning, the “deceased” was placed in a hearse and taken away for an autopsy prior to being released to family members.
It could be 3 to 7 days before the body is released to the family so they can make funeral arrangements, McPherson said.
Even though they are trained for situations like this, fatal accidents impact their jobs and their lives, McPherson said. “It’s not just the family and friends that are impacted by this — it’s everybody. I’ve been a police officer for 27 years and I remember every single fatal accident I’ve ever been to.”
Students then moved to the Leighton gymnasium where they witnessed city police officers tell the victim’s “parents” their daughter would never becoming home again.
“They are words no one wants to say. But they are words that have to be said. It’s a job that everybody hates!” Lighthall told the student audience. “Make a plan now. When you get into a vehicle (with a drunk driver) it is too late. That’s a lot and it still has an impact you and how you look at life.”
A drunk driver may have to pay upwards of $10,000 in fines and other fees, McPherson, adding that is about what a year of college would cost.
A pall hung over the crowd inside the gym as the “family” and the students, who earlier had portrayed the victims, wheeled a casket into the center of the gym.
One of the victim’s friends sang Amazing Grace as another stepped away from the others to deliver the eulogy.
“We come to this place, totally unprepared. It’s so hard to talk about ‘Mikayla’ in the past tense. She was the type of young woman who had a great future ahead of her. She had the world in the palm of her hands,” she said. “We need to surround and support each other with love.”
“She will be missed by many, especially me. She will never walk across the stage to get her high school diploma. But I know that when I extend my hand to get mine, I will think of my friend, our friend, ‘Mikayla,’” she continued.
Some audience members were visibly shaken by the emotion on display. However, there were also several that weren’t.
“Every 15 minutes in the United States someone dies from alcohol related traffic accidents,” ‘Mikayla’ said, speaking from the “grave.”
She told her parents that she hoped they weren’t angry with her and that they know she hadn’t been drinking and was driving responsibly, “and yet I am talking to you from my grave because someone didn’t act responsibly. Someone decided drinking was more important than my life,” her voice cracking with emotion.
Shelly Potter, whose husband was killed by a drunk driver, shared her story with the students.
“Drinking and driving is not a joke. Don’t do it, it’s just not worth it” she told the students. “You can always call your parents, no matter the situation. They don’t want to get that knock on the door where a police officer has to tell them that you’re never coming home.”
Though it has been several years since the accident, she said she still thinks about it every day.
“If my story affects just one person, helps them make the right choice, then it is worth it to me,” she told Oswego County Today. “It never ‘gets old.’ I’ve been doing this for 15 years now. It makes it all worth it because it only takes one. Some of the students came over to talk to me after the presentation; you get to a few and some are just (the kind you’re not going to get to) and they’ll have to learn the hard way.”
The year before the mock DWI crash program became an annual event at county schools, two students died in an alcohol-related crash.
“Since then, we have had zero,” the former undersheriff said following Friday’s program. “And, knock on wood, that will continue this year.”
In 1989, Lighthall said he investigated 21 fatal accidents in the county when he was a member of the Sheriff’s Office.
“Not all of them were alcohol-related,” he pointed out. “However, many were. Police officers take those memories home with them, they never forget.”
He encouraged the students not to drink and drive; and to have a plan if they do find themselves in precarious situation.
“Don’t drink. Don’t get in a car with a driver who has been drinking,” he warned. “It’s all over in just one second. Now is the time to plan.”
The “drunk driver” will get out of prison and go on with his life; but, the “victim,” he is gone – forever, he told the students.
“It doesn’t get any easier than that. It’s your decision,” he said.