A crash course in responsibility

Last Friday, South Kitsap High School senior Brandi Lindberg was put in a body bag and taken away in the Kitsap County Coroner’s van.

Luckily, as soon the van’s doors closed, she unzipped the bag and crawled back out.

Hers was a fake death, complete with fake blood. But the warning delivered by the jarring re-creation of a DUI-related car crash at the high school Friday morning was soberingly real.

“One of the most important decisions you will make as an adult is whether to drive after you’ve been drinking,” said Sgt. Mark Duncan of the Port Orchard Police Department. “After this re-enactment, we hope you all make the right choices and get to enjoy the rest of the lives you have ahead of you.”

The scene began with members of the school’s acting ensemble portraying kids driving home after their prom. Outdoor speakers broadcast their happy, excited talk to the seniors gathered near the school’s front entrance to watch the scene a day before their own prom.

But then the actors’ voices turn worried and scared as they come across a car crash. Soon they are screaming as they realize that both cars are full of their friends.

The cars are smashed together in a crumpled heap of torn metal, broken windows and crying people covered in blood. At least one of them is lying in the road.

“This is a scene we see all too often,” said Russ Clitherow of the Kitsap County Sheriff’s Department, as the group erupts into chaos. One student dials 911 as the others wander around wailing, yelling at each other or simply dazed.

Within moments, sirens blare as police cars, an ambulance and a fire engine descend on the scene. The officers begin interviewing witnesses and performing sobriety tests while the firefighters move immediately to one of the cars — a red compact. There’s a girl in the road next to it, and there’s another badly injured girl trapped in the car’s back seat.

Clitherow narrates as the scene progresses.

“As you can see, a young lady was ejected from the car, and she’s lying on the pavement,” Clitherow said. “I think she’s just being pronounced now.”

As he spoke, a police officer put handcuffs on the driver of the blue car, which had crashed head-on into the red car.

“Just because he’s 17, that doesn’t mean he won’t go to prison,” he said. “If he’s convicted of vehicular assault or homicide, he’ll get a minimum of three years. But this is not just about him — what about the victims?”

There was a pause as it became clear to the crowd that no one was attending to the girl in the road anymore. She was now covered in a sheet.

“Now we’ve got to go knock on someone’s door at 2 a.m. to tell them their daughter’s dead,” Clitherow said. “How do you think your parents would feel if it was their door we had to knock on?”

The activities began to drown him out as the firefighters turned their attention to the girl — senior Holly Pattee — in the backseat, injured and trapped, but still alive.

Using the “jaws of life,” they tore the passenger-side door off the car. Then one firefighter crawled inside to shield Pattee from shards of glass as the windows were smashed out. Eventually they cut the top of the car off to get her out.

Pattee was then loaded onto the waiting ambulance while the driver of the blue car left in a police car. The last to leave was Lindberg, the girl in the road, put in a thick blue body bag and wheeled to the coroner’s van.

“When you’ve been drinking and you get behind the wheel, you’re putting your life at risk and the lives of others,” said Kitsap County Coroner Greg Sandstrom. “Have fun tomorrow — but don’t screw around on the road.”

One horrible summer

The director of all this controlled chaos was Cliff Wilson, a medical officer with Fire District 7, who worked closely with drama teacher Debi Emans and the high school’s interventionist, Leah Gilland, to choreograph the event.

He said this group began staging mock crashes at the school after the summer of 1997, when five teenagers, most South Kitsap High students at the time, were killed in four separate accidents.

“We’ve done one just about every year since,” Wilson said, explaining that little details are added or changed each time, but the re-enactments are always dramatic. And they always include a fatality.

This year’s re-creation was especially strong, he said, because the officers enlisted the help of the student actors.

“The impact was far greater with (the actors),” he said, and it was an especially good touch having some students pull up in a third car to find the accident, an element the group added this year.

“Having the kids discover the car was Leah’s idea,” Emans said, “which I thought was great because it would be more meaningful to have them reacting to the crash.”

Emans said she also thought staging the wreck on the road near the school added even more authenticity.

“We used to do it on the football field,” Emans said, “but they decided to do it here because it’s more realistic.”

“It’s also the perfect time of year,” Gilland said, “because their prom is tomorrow.”

Senior Shena White said she thought the re-enactment was very powerful, especially because of the good job her fellow students from the acting ensemble had done portraying shocked and despondent victims.

“It was very realistic,” White said, a member of the high school’s Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) club, who said she has personal stake in the success of the event.

“I’ve seen too many people ruin their lives, and I don’t want it to happen to anyone else,” she said.

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