Experiencing DUI aftermath firsthand

Flashing emergency lights. Shattered glass and blood. Two totaled cars. Two CHS students dead and several injured. Bystanders were greeted by a grisly site Wednesday morning on Indian Hill Boulevard next to Claremont High School.

Luckily, the crash—which saw one student rushed to Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center, another airlifted by Mercy Air, 2 taken away in a coroner’s van and a fifth convicted of a DUI—was just a mock-up, the elaborate centerpiece of the biennial Every 15 Minutes program.

But for the juniors and seniors who filed out of classes at 11 a.m. to view the scene, the message was emotionally charged and clear. Don’t drink and drive.

“It’s pretty eye-opening to see what it would actually look like to be at the scene of it,” said junior Mina Bloom.

Staged on a closed-off section of the street near the Wolfpack football field, the crash involved a car that—after drinking and texting on the part of the driver, portrayed by senior Ryan Kim—crashed into a car driven by biology teacher Marizka Rivette.

The DUI car carried 2 seriously injured teens; another, sprawled on the hood, was pronounced dead at the scene. One of the 3 student passengers in Rivette’s car was thrown onto the street and pronounced dead at the scene, while another had to be extricated via the Jaws of Life, wielded by members of the Claremont Fire Department.

The crash victims, posed in cars destroyed in actual collisions and donated by S&J Towing, were selected after being suggested by CHS teachers and counselors. They were picked to represent a broad cross-section of the student body.


An impactful sight

“I know all of them,” said senior Troy Ford, indicating the fake blood-spattered students. “It would suck if this really happened, because they’re all pretty good people.”

Wine and beer bottles were pulled from the car as the faux perpetrator was booked and handcuffed by Claremont police. When all was said and done, one drunk driver had resulted in 4 deaths.

“It’s interesting that the innocent person can be the one who suffers most,” said Mina.

She added that she appreciated the 3 Grim Reapers hovering over the scene, one of which climbed into an ambulance with a critically injured student who “died” at the hospital.

“I love the symbolism,” she said.


Increased awareness

For the some 1,400 students who viewed the accident, school returned to normal until they reconvened the next day, Thursday, March 23, for a follow-up assembly.  

But for the nearly 40 student participants, both crash victims and “Walking Dead,” the day had just begun. First, they headed to a room near the auditorium for lunch.

A few teens had to be retrieved from various locations. Senior Andrei Tarankow, a Wolfpack football player, was at the hospital after his ambulance ride; his parents, active participants in the mock-up, were there and had been notified of his “death.”

Teens often feel immortal. It was hard to maintain this belief as the 40 students were next whisked to the Todd Memorial Chapel for a tour.


Retreating for reflection

Then it was time for the “dead” of Claremont High School to disappear for a while. The students retreated to a nearby hotel for the night. Their stay, as well as the Every 15 Minutes event as a whole, was funded by a nearly-$10,000 grant from the California Highway Patrol.

Once there, the students were educated further in the risks of drunk driving, and were asked to compose letters to their parents or other loved ones. Written as if they had died at the hands of an intoxicated driver, they detailed all the things they would never get to do.

Not every aspect of the retreat was grim. Community volunteers from the NewSong Church in San Dimas organized games, and the students enjoyed a dinner of donated Domino’s pizza and salad and pasta contributed by the local Buca Di Beppo.

The next day, after a breakfast provided by Marie Callender’s and Corner Bakery Cafe, the students headed for CHS. They read their farewell letters at an assembly for CHS upperclassmen, which started at 10:30 and ran until noon.

The mock funeral featured a casket borrowed from Todd Memorial Chapel and draped with flowers donated by Sherwood Florist.

Every 15 Minutes coordinator Nancy Spyker said the reading was a heartrending experience for both the “deceased” and those in the audience.

“It gives you chills,” said Ms. Spyker, the mother of 2 CHS alumni. “We had guys crying and girls crying while reading them. The parents were crying and so were the kids in the audience.”

Though an Every 15 Minutes event takes 7 months to plan and is “a lot of work,” Ms. Spyker feels strongly enough about its mission that this year marks the third time she has served as a coordinator.

As a longtime nurse, she saw firsthand the devastation wreaked by bad decisions or bad luck involving alcohol.

“I saw too many kids come in dead or paralyzed because of drunk driving,” she said. “I didn’t want to be in a room again and see [a young person] pronounced dead, and see the parents’ eyes.”

Speakers at the assembly included a 19-year-old Cal State Fullerton student who was seriously injured when she got into the car with a friend who had been drinking.

It was a familiar story: “She didn’t seem that drunk to me.” The girl ended up with a broken hip, was wheelchair-bound for a time, and took away a life lesson that she feels compelled to share with other teens.


Driving a message home

Every 15 Minutes, which now also cautions against texting and driving, has been held at dozens of high schools since its inception in 1995. It’s a national program but, as in every city, the problem of impaired driving is a local one.

Last week, a local high school student was involved in a hit-and-run accident, escaping with his life but not without a DUI.

And in 2009, 20-year-old Courtney Stewart—a CHS alumna and Cal State Fullerton student—was killed when her car was broadsided by a drunk driver. One of her 2 passengers who died included 22-year-old Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart.

“This happens in our city, guys,” said Connie Lannom, a CHS alumna and Every 15 Minutes coordinator.

The program—which Ms. Lannom was inspired to join after losing a family member to a drunk driving accident—doesn’t waste time stressing abstinence.

“We know the reality is that high school students will drink. We want them to make wise choices so they can fulfill their dreams. We want them to understand the severity of it,” she said.

There is a clear alternative to letting alcohol drive your fate, said CHS parent Justine Omwanghe, who came to view the crash site because her daughter gets her driver’s license next week. 

She urges her daughter to call for a ride if there’s any doubt about driving safely.

“If you feel uncomfortable, if you know you’re drunk, or whoever took you is drunk, call me or call your dad,” she said.

—Sarah Torribio


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