She didn’t come home for dinner or to sleep in her own bed.
The house was so quiet, then a knock came at the door.
A Tustin Police officer and a chaplain asked to come inside to tell Adama Sirleaf and his wife the unimaginable.
Their daughter, Linda McNeil, had been killed by a drunken driver.
This isn’t real.
Sirleaf needed to see for himself.
He went to the scene of the accident on El Camino Real, just out front of his daughter’s school, Tustin High.
Sirleaf saw his daughter’s limp and bloodied body draped over the hood of a badly crunched vehicle, her cell phone clutched in her hand.
He watched as a firefighter lifted his daughter’s body from the wreckage before laying her in a body bag.
This isn’t real.
The next day, Sirleaf said goodbye to his youngest child.
He talked about his Linda — a bubbly 17-year-old he described as a ray of sunshine for those who needed it most.
He fought back tears.
This isn’t real.
Sirleaf continued to repeat the phrase in his mind.
Denying the reality of a tragedy can be a common reaction when a person receives devastating news — a byproduct of shock and the initial stage of grief.
Fortunately for Sirleaf, the phrase that constantly played in his mind wasn’t shock.
It was reality.
His daughter played one of the victims of a drunken driving accident for Tustin High School’s Every 15 Minutes program.
“I just kept telling myself that it wasn’t real, but it actually feels real,” Sirleaf said. “It’s very powerful. When I went to the scene and saw her body, that hit me hard.”
The program is supposed to feel that way for the students involved, their families and for all 1,100 juniors and seniors who attended.
The graphic and emotional display helps the Tustin PD and Tustin High School drive home the message that drinking and driving comes with real consequences.
The nationwide Every 15 Minutes program started in 1995 to raise awareness about the dangers of drinking and driving.
The program’s name came from a statistic that held true at the time: Every 15 minutes, someone in the United States dies or is seriously injured in an alcohol-related traffic collision.
Today, a person dies every 53 minutes in an alcohol-related crash, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Still an unacceptable number, but it might mean awareness programs like this one are having an impact.
This is why police and schools stay diligent in getting the message out.
It’s impactful and effective, said Tustin Sgt. Ryan Coe.
“If it stops one student from drinking and driving, it’s successful,” said Coe, who sat on the committee to organize the event. “It also gives parents an opportunity to engage in what can be difficult conversations with their kids.”
The Tustin PD, along with a list of other supporters including the Orange County Fire Authority and the California Highway Patrol, staged the elaborate drunken driving accident Tuesday.
Twenty-five students participated in the role play either as actors or as the “living dead,” which are students pulled from their classrooms and taken on a two-day retreat to highlight the dangers of drinking and driving.
The display is as close to reality as most of these teens will ever see.
Crunched cars were dropped on El Camino Real while police arranged how they wanted the scene laid out.
Broken glass and fake blood were splashed on the asphalt and beer cans were placed on the dashboard of one of the vehicles.
Makeup artists from Knott’s Berry Farm, expert at creating ghoulish and bloody faces every year at Halloween, made the victims’ injuries look realistic.
Firefighters also participated, rendering medical aid to the victims and cutting the top off a vehicle to pull one of the teens out.
A CARE ambulance team was also on scene and took two victims to a local hospital where doctors and nurses mimicked what it would be like in a trauma room.
The suspect, 18-year-old Nicole Andreae, was booked at Tustin PD’s jail — mug shots, fingerprints and all.
“Although it never felt fully real to me, there were moments I was sitting in that car and it hit me,” Andreae said. “It definitely affected me.
“You’re going to have at least one less person on the road and that’s all that matters.”
McNeil’s body was taken to Saddleback Mortuary, which has a memorial wall with the names of all the Orange County victims of drunken driving for students to reflect on.
Tustin Police Officer Jeremy Laurich talked to the students about moral responsibility and being the person to step in should their peers consider drinking and getting behind the wheel.
This is what hit McNeil most.
“Students don’t really think that deep about drinking and driving,” she said. “You have to be the one to let your peers know it’s not right.”
A video crew captured the whole thing, which was shown at the next-day assembly.
A memoriam slideshow of the “living dead” students scrolled on a large screen as “Ave Maria” played over the sound system.
Some parents and students read goodbye letters, and most cried.
A drug and alcohol counselor gave a speech in which he showed the photos of real people killed by drunken drivers, including his younger brother.
When Jason Barber announced he was the drunken driver responsible, an audible gasp could be heard in the gymnasium.
“We all need to make the decision that there isn’t going to be any more senselessness,” he told the students. “Literally the only way to make a difference is in your hands.”
When the assembly wrapped up, Sirleaf grabbed his daughter, pulling her in for a big bear hug.
“She’s always talking at home, so not hearing her voice was so hard,” he said. “It makes you realize, before something bad happens, just how special the people in your life are.”
That night McNeil would be home for dinner, she would sleep in her own bed and their home would not be quiet — just the way Sirleaf likes it.
This is real.