Outside Anaheim High School, Anaheim Fire & Rescue firefighters use the jaws of life to extract an unconscious teenage girl from a wrecked car while paramedics bandage two other injured students who survived a fatal midmorning car crash.
Students, faculty, and spectators have a clear view of the two cars, and of the student who flew through the windshield, landing unmoving on the car’s white hood, blood drying around his body. The teens should have been in their third-period class, but instead had skipped school to party.
The Grim Reaper walks somberly around the scene, new sneakers gleaming white, as the 911 call plays over a loudspeaker for the campus to hear. The driver, senior Esmeralda Danda, is crying as she answers questions from an Anaheim Police officer.
The Every 15 Minutes program, which sponsors scenes such as this to demonstrate drive home the dangers of drunk driving at high schools nationwide, is funded by a grant from the California Highway Patrol and the California Office of Traffic Safety.
“This is a great tool for awareness prevention,” said Firefighter/Paramedic Dennis Biggins of Station 1. “I think every school should have it, even at the junior high level.”
Engineer Rob Fry of Anaheim Fire & Rescue Engine 6 bandaged accident victims Cindy Guzman and Adam Rodriguez while firefighters from Station 1, Truck 1 removed their unconscious friend, Karina Moreno, from the car she’d been driving when the crash happened.
“My heart was pounding a lot,” said Guzman, a senior. “Karina, the one who was taken to the hospital, she’s one of my close friends and seeing her like that — even though I knew it wasn’t real — it made me realize that can happen and to appreciate the things I have right now.”
Rodriguez noted that Anaheim’s prom was that Saturday, and students now have this scene in their minds as they get ready for the dance.
“I’m thinking that I need to be more careful with the decisions I make because even though we’re just pretending right now, it can happen to us and it can happen in a matter of seconds and everything can change,” Guzman said. “Karina, her parents are at the hospital and will identify her body and (the coroner will) pronounce her dead.”
Though five students were involved in the accident, the Grim Reaper and police officers visited another student every 15 minutes throughout the school day, for a total of 31 teens who won’t be going home to their families that night. The number accentuates the statistic that every 15 minutes someone in the United States is killed in an alcohol-related traffic collision.
“It’s an excellent learning experience for the kids,” Biggins said.
Once a student leaves class with the Grim Reaper, their obituary is read to the class. Drama students Bianca Trujillo and Julia Mora, both seniors under the direction of Every 15 Minutes Makeup Director Vicki Sundgren, will add ghostly makeup. Then, the “living dead” return to class as silent participants in their former lives.
“Hopefully they learn a valuable lesson that drinking and driving can cause a lot of unfortunate injuries and possible death to other people and turn people’s lives around just from one event. And they can’t take it back,” Fry said. “Hopefully, it was impressionable.”
The students stayed overnight at Hotel Fullerton, where they wrote letters to their parents as though they had died that day, while at home their parents were writing similar goodbyes. The families reunited the following day during an assembly where they watched a video of the event by Create and Capture Films. The students involved in the crash scenario visited the morgue, police station, or hospital before they ended the night at the hotel.
“I think it’s good for the kids to see, get a little shock of what could happen,” said Anaheim Fire & Rescue Captain Eric Ham. The scene mimicked real-life scenarios firefighters see on the job.
“For us, there are definitely emotions going, especially when we see kids hurt,” Ham said. “I’ve thought to myself, ‘Some parent’s about to get their world turned upside down. It’s going to be the worst moment of their life.’”
Juniors Bryan Otero and Anthony Monroy, who were tapped by Death during their second- period class, had written their own obituaries in preparation for the exercise.
“It felt really uncomfortable,” Monroy said, adding that he wrote about health issues he’d overcome. “It’s tough to write it. I never accomplished what I wanted to accomplish.”
Otero was anticipating his parents reacting to his letter.
“I just felt like, this is kind of like serious,” Otero said. “What if one day I just did step out and never come home or something? What if I never got the opportunity to go to college or even get my career or have a family? You never know, at any moment it could be cut short.”
Otero said he participated in Every 15 Minutes because he wants to show how lives can be forever altered by alcohol use.
“It takes a toll on everyone in life, not just the victims,” he said. “People lose their family. Their life is on hold.”
Danda, the driver of one of the wrecked cars, visited the police station after being arrested at the scene and driven away in the back of a squad car. Because she’s under 21, officers reminded Danda over the loudspeaker that she is not allowed to drive with any amount of alcohol in her system.
“It seemed real because she started crying, and Jorge (Diaz) is already dead at the scene,” senior Adam Rodriguez said. “That was probably the worst part right there. It was just scary.”
Officers administered a sobriety test in front of the crowd, and Danda had trouble keeping her head still while watching a pencil eraser move in a circle and standing with one foot off the ground for several seconds — likely reactions from a person who had just one beer, said Officer Tom Poer of the Anaheim Police Department.
“That’s the demographic we need to reach, that have a false sense of comfort and think they’re OK to drive,” Poer said. “They seem like they’re paying attention, but in reality, they are giving away very obvious clues that they should not be driving… They’re not aware they’re moving their head. An impaired driver won’t necessarily be aware they’re making that mistake.”
“We have Uber and so many other means of transportation,” Fry said. “Hopefully they’ll consider that before getting behind the wheel. It’s so much cheaper than having an ambulance bill or causing injuries or death to somebody else. It’s just not worth it.”