OSWEGO, NY – Members of the Oswego High School junior class sat through a gruesome presentation Thursday 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 was ejected from her vehicle, her arm severed. She was sprawled across the hood – “dead” at the scene, according to the scenario.
As the students gazed at the tableau of wrecked vehicles, 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,” said Cathy McPherson a member of the county’s STOP-DWI program, the narrator and guide for the viewers.
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 came outside to witness the aftermath of the staged fatal accident. They listened as the 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.
Everything was treated as if it was a real crash.
The “drunk driver” staggered around, checking on the victim that had been ejected. Police officers gave the driver a field sobriety test, and when he failed, they took him into custody and charged him with DWI. A felony charge of second-degree vehicular manslaughter was added later at his arraignment in front of Oswego Town Judge Michael Sterio.
It had taken about two minutes for emergency crews to respond. But, for the “victims,” it seemed like it was forever.
Out in the county, it could be as much as 10 to 12 minutes before anybody gets to you.
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, Robert Lighthall, Oswego County STOP-DWI coordinator said, “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.
Students then moved to the Leighton gymnasium where they witnessed a city police officer and District Attorney Greg Oakes (who is also the county’s coroner) tell the victim’s “mother” her 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 said.
Then, a pall hung over the crowd 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 stepped away from the others to deliver the eulogy.
“We come to this place, totally unprepared. It’s so hard to talk about ‘Lauren’ 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, ‘Lauren,’” she continued.
Several audience members, male and female, were visibly shaken by the emotion on display. However, there were also pockets of students in the audience laughing and chatting with each other as if nothing was going on.
“Every 15 minutes in the United States someone dies from alcohol related traffic accidents,” ‘Lauren’ said, speaking from the “grave.”
She told her parents that she hoped 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.”
Wendy Peters who was involved in fatal alcohol-related crash years ago shared her story with the students. She was in a coma for two weeks.
“Drinking and driving is not a joke,” 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. You’re young. You have you’re whole lives ahead of you. I hope you learn from my experience.”
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.”
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.”
The “drunk driver” will get out of prison and go on with his life; but, the “victim” she is gone – forever, he told the students.
“If we convinced just one person not to drink and drive then we got our message across,” said OHS counselor Shawn Caroccio, coordinator of the event.
Participating in this year’s program were:
Officer Jim Ladue
Office Justin D’Elia
Sgt. Mike Brown
Lt. Charlie Searor
Chief Jeff McCrobie
Assistant Chief Don Dowd
All the other first responders
Oswego County DA Greg Oaks
Defendant- Joe Rodack
Judge Michael Sterio
Make Up crew
Oswego Theater Department (Steven Braun)
Oswego School District Grounds Department
Scotty Towing Service
Oswego TV Studio
Sugar and Scanlon Funeral Home
Mentors Ambulance Service
Deceased- Lauren Peel
Drunk Driver- Seamus Darrow