By Geghard ARAKELIAN
Last Wednesday a grim scene was on display on Ramdsdell Avenue, adjacent to Crescenta Valley High School, as students came across the bodies of their classmates mangled and motionless after a gruesome car wreck; onlookers shared mixed feelings as some laughed and others looked on silently during the Every 15 Minutes program.
At about 10 a.m. students crowded the sidewalk on Ramsdell Avenue to catch a glimpse of the car collision staged by Every 15 Minutes. The program, which is aimed at making students more aware of the grim realities of driving under the influence, replicated a graphic alcohol-related collision on the road.
The scene provided by the program included two wrecked cars, students in gory makeup along with other teens dressed as the living dead, and one wearing a Grim Reaper costume.
The students in white makeup, portraying the living dead, served as a reminder of the statistic that every 15 minutes someone dies of an alcohol related car collision. Those who appeared dead on the street served to remind people of the harsh reality of DUI related deaths and injuries.
Complementing the role-playing display of dead drivers and injured passengers were the California Highway Patrol, the Los Angeles County Fire Department, the L.A. County Coroner’s Office, the Glendale Police Department, Sheriff’s deputies, Montrose Search and Rescue members and an ambulance from Glendale Adventist Hospital.
“It was very realistic. A lot of times we stage these for the kids to see certain aspects. This is one of the more realistic ones I’ve been to because they actually had the time lag,” said Battalion Chief Steve Martin of the Los Angeles County Fire Department. “It feels like forever when you’ve been in an accident. You’re waiting for help to arrive and then one by one police and equipment start to come and reality sets in.”
Despite the attention to detail given to the collision, some groups of students chuckled and laughed collectively at their classmates who lay “dead” in pools of blood or at the actor being arrested for driving under the influence. Other youths could be seen motioning for people to move out of the way in an attempt to watch the events unfold.
Officer Bill Torley of the Glendale Police Department, who was responsible for coordinating the events of the program, admitted that not all students can be reached by the staged scenario.
“We’re not going to stop kids from drinking. They’re going to do that as part of growing up. The message that we want [for] them is to be responsible in their decisions,” said Torley. “If they’ve gone out [to drink], don’t get behind that wheel. If you’ve gone to a party and your ride home is the guy that has been drinking, don’t get into the car.”
This message resonated with some of the teens who actively participated in the program. After the CHP made their arrest, two survivors of the crash were taken to the Glendale Adventist Emergency Room.
Emergency Room nurses worked in a hurry to stabilize Jennifer Buyer’s condition, who seemed as though she wasn’t going to make it. A senior at CVHS, Buyer was deeply affected by the experience and was scared to see her mother cry over her hospital bed.
Buyer described the hectic rush to the hospital and experience in the ER as “crazy. It’s something I will remember. Just hearing my mom’s voice and having the oxygen mask [on] – that really hit me hard.”
Likewise, Buyer’s mother was emotionally impacted by the scenario.
“I was devastated. I thought [to myself] when I first saw her, if she was alive, if she was dead? And it bothered me, seeing my daughter, someone you love very much, lying helpless,” said Michelle Buyer.
The second victim of the crash was rushed to the hospital along with Buyer but was declared dead after the nurses worked to revive her.
“It hurt me. It hurt my heart and I would not want any parent to go through that.” said Michelle. “I was lucky that [Jennifer] lived and I feel sorry for all the families that lost a child to an alcohol related car accident. But I’m hoping that by this, people and students and kids will know not to drink and drive.”
Even though the scenario in the ER was tough on the senses, coordinators of the event stressed its importance.
“I think it’s probably one of the most amazing programs that they can present to teenagers,” said Vetta Mankarios, assistant head nurse at the Glendale Adventist Emergency Center.
Organizers feel that if Every 15 Minutes prevents one teenager from drinking and driving, then a number of lives can be potentially saved in the future. Those affected by drunk driving collisions don’t just include the driver, but passengers and pedestrians as well, said Mankarios.
While the ER segment of the program was coming to a close, Chris Veselich, a senior at CVHS, was being booked at the GPD jailhouse for his role as the drunk driver on Ramsdell Avenue. During the scenario, several of Veselich’s friends were killed in the accident he caused when he was driving under the influence.
The teenage participant of the program was given no special treatment as he was put in a cell neighboring cell blocks of actual detainees at the jailhouse. The scenario was intended to simulate what it is like to be arrested and then booked.
“It was intense, going to jail and getting the field sobriety test done and, well, getting put in a cell and shutting the door –it was crazy,” said Veselich.
And simulating the real experience as close as possible is “why we do something like this,” said Officer Todd Workman of the California Highway Patrol, who helped with the field sobriety test and the arrest.
“Most teenagers, and most adults for that matter, have never been in a major fatality collision and all the ins and outs that go on at a scene,” said Workman. “So when you put together something like this in a controlled environment we’re able to show these students exactly what happens.”
And after his short time in jail Veselich was taken to the Glendale courthouse where he was found guilty and sentenced.
Presiding over the courtroom was Judge Frederick Rotenberg who in sentencing Veselich also addressed participating students of CVHS who filled the courthouse. The judge first addressed Veselich by citing traffic statistics. Drunk driving fatalities accounted for 32% of all traffic deaths in 2009; fatalities attributable to drivers under 21 years of age were 13%, said Rotenberg.
“Mr. Veselich, these statistics are cold and personal numbers entered into a computer system. We hear them every day about a variety of matters,” said Rotenberg. “Julia Kevin and Danielle are not statistics. They were living, breathing human beings that were immediately taken from their families and friends.”
As the judge gave his speech Veselich quietly listened. His arms and legs were chained and he was wearing a yellow jumpsuit. The judge reminded the youth of how his actions were irreversible.
“They will not have the chance to go with their family or friends to watch, laugh or cry at the movies. They won’t be able to hear the joy of music at a concert or just sit back and watch a sitcom on TV,” said Rotenberg.
With his closing statements the judge sentenced Veselich for being guilty on three counts of murder and five counts of drinking and driving with a blood alcohol level of .08 and causing injury. Had the trial not been a mock scenario, Veselich would have served 45 years to life plus another 12 years in a California state prison.
Every 15 Minutes is a resource intensive scenario that takes days to perform. But according to officials it’s worth the time and effort.
“The CHP, through the office of Traffic Safety, sponsors just short of a $10,000 grant to offset the funds to put this on,” said Torley. “It’s a very expensive program but it’s well worth it. If we save one life: one life is worth at least $10,000.”
Other members of the community concur.
“Obviously it’s very expensive to put a program like this on. It takes a lot of effort, a lot of time,” said Sheriff’s Deputy Scott Shinagawa, CV Sheriff’s and school resource officer. “It’s one of those things that if it makes one kid think about their decision to drink and drive, then it’s definitely worth it.”
After Veselich’s day long ordeal, his personal belief about drinking and driving is, “Don’t think about it, don’t do it.”
But officials do admit that even though Every 15 Minutes is an immense undertaking it’s still difficult to reach kids.
“You know, I’d love to tell you that we can be a 100% successful and stop kids from drinking. Reality is that we know that’s not going to happen,” said Torley. “We think we’ve got a pretty good success rate with the kids knowing and understanding that there’s consequences to some of their decisions.”
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Officials admitted that the notion of invincibility can be a hurdle in getting teens to make responsible decisions when driving.
“I think we’ve kind of all been there: under the impression that ‘it’s never going to happen to you’ type of thing until it does,” said Captain Janet Henderson of Montrose Search and Rescue.
Yet officials are undeterred in teaching lessons that teenagers may be resistant to.
“This is one of the reasons why I went and took the job as a school resource officer at the high school, just for the idea to help kids,” said Shinagawa.
Officers on site at the car crash shared the same sentiment.
“There are 1,400 students out here, possibly more that are going to be affected if this gets to at least a small percentage of them,” said Communications Leader Officer Matt Zakarian of the GPD. “At least they’ll know or think twice when they drive under the influence of alcohol.”
At the very least, two students were affected by the events of the day. When it comes to drinking and driving, one student vehemently expressed, “Never! It’s just dumb. I would never want do that and hope nobody else would want to after [my] experience,” said Jennifer Buyer.
And the biggest realization Veselich had was “how easy it is for someone to [drink and drive]. And how easily it can affect some one’s life.”