FARMINGTON — Dressed as the Grim Reaper in head-to-toe black robes and holding a prop scythe, Farmington firefighter Steve Wolf presided over the Every 15 Minutes program at Piedra Vista High School on Thursday, reminding students about the cost of drinking and driving.
"Hopefully, it makes them think twice about drinking and driving," Wolf said.
The goal of the Every 15 Minutes program is to generate awareness about the perils of consuming alcohol and operating a motor vehicle, said Rick Hoerner, who organized the program.
"Every 15 minutes we have an alcohol-related accident, and we want to try and have something impactful for the kids to get a real visual of what some of these hazards would be," Hoerner said.
Wolf made an appearance Thursday morning during the scene of a mock car crash. The scene was staged to make it appear as if a car had collided with light pole in the school's south parking lot.
About 1,300 students left class after the intercom played a fake 911 call made from one of the crash victims. Student Shalee Clark played the role of the caller, stumbling around the wreck as she spoke to a dispatcher on her cell phone.
Over the course of an hour, students watched as San Juan County emergency services responded to the scene of the crash.
As part of the exercise, officials from the Farmington Police Department, San Juan County Sheriff's Office, Farmington Fire Department and San Juan Regional Medical Center arrived on scene to tend to the six students in the car.
Sophomore Victoria Acosta and senior Alex Gallegos pretended to be paralyzed from the crash, and firefighters extracted them from the car after removing the roof with a hydraulic rescue tool.
Gallegos said he wanted to participate in the mock crash after his friend, Andrew Pope, died on Aug. 2, 2012, after a car crash. The crash did not involve alcohol.
"Honestly, that is the main reason I'm doing this. It's for him and his family," Gallegos said.
"We were both going into our senior year, and we were both suppose to play football together, and he had gotten into a car accident near Pi–on (Hills Boulevard). We were pretty much brothers."
Piedra Vista High School students and emergency crews from throughout the county participate in a simulated accident and rescue on Thursday, April 11, as a part of Every 15 Minutes, a national program designed to teach students about the dangers of drinking and driving. (Augusta Liddic/The Daily Times)
Brandon Fleming played the role of the student declared dead at the scene. A hearse from Brewer, Lee and Larkin Funeral Home transported him from the crash scene.
The driver of the car who pretended to be under the influence of alcohol, Thiana Von-Ha, was given a sobriety test by a police officer before she was placed in the back of a police cruiser.
Von-Ha's mother, Dawn Kihega, watched from the stands as her daughter pretended to be arrested. Kihega said she has spoken to her daughter about the dangers of drinking and driving many times.
"It's scary but I'm glad they're doing this to show other students not to do the same thing," Kihega said. "To tell other kids it's not right to go out and drink and get into a vehicle."
The mock car accident Thursday morning was the first part of the two-day program. The program continues today.
Wolf remained dressed as the Grim Reaper after the mock car crash, walking from classroom to classroom with a police officer. Forty students volunteered to be removed from class and pretended to be dead for 24 hours.
Those students were transported to the McGee Park Convention Center and were isolated and barred from any outside communication.
Hoerner said the goal of isolating the students was to drive home the impact of death, even if it was only pretend.
Senior Katie Hegarty said she agreed with Hoerner's statement. Being isolated with no electronics brought realism to the program, she said.
"My parents were very freaked out. They were like, "What if we want to talk to you?'" Hegarty said. "I said, "I'm technically dead. No one can contact me then.'"
The students formed groups and switched between lessons on topics such as the effects of alcohol on the human body and how juvenile offenders are processed by police officers after committing a crime.
Students slept at the convention center Thursday night, and they are scheduled to return to the high school this morning to attend a mock funeral in the gym for them, their parents and the student body.
During the memorial, a slideshow will display photos of the 40 students. The photos depict what the students enjoyed about high school and what their future plans were before they died. The memorial will also include a performance by the school's chamber choir, and a number of guest speakers will share their experiences concerning drinking and driving.
Students and parents were given an option to write letters to each other about the students' deaths. Those letters will also be read during the assembly.
Hegarty said she was dreading writing the letter to her parents.
"I love my parents to death, and I don't know what I would say," Hegarty said. "What can you really say if you were going to die tomorrow? What is there to say? There is so much to say. There are no words. Hopefully, something inspires me."
Joshua Kellogg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; 505-564-4627. Follow him on Twitter @jkelloggdt.