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‘In a split second, it can all be gone’

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The dangers of driving were portrayed in a staged fatal crash re-enactment at Middlesex High School. (Photo by Allison Payne)

by Tom Chillemi

Every 30 minutes someone is killed by a drunk driver.

To drive home this fact, Middlesex High School recently staged an accident scene so students could experience the impact of a fatal crash.

It was a scene all too familiar to police, firefighters and rescue squad EMTs.

Two cars collide head on. A passenger not wearing a seat belt is ejected through the back window and dies.

Passengers are injured, some seriously. Sirens howl their mournful tone as the injured are transported.

A mother hurries to the scene. Police have her look at a body that is covered by a sheet. She stares down at the pale gray face of her dead daughter.

Bystanders stare silently as a hearse slowly leaves the scene.

In an instant, a high school senior’s life is snuffed out. And, those who love her are shattered.

The consequences for the drunk driver are only beginning. He faces a lifetime of regret.

Although the crash was staged, the emotions were real. It left a lasting impression on those involved.

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Lara Lucas, who played the part of the deceased, lay in the parking lot, covered by a sheet. She could hear her mother, Heather Lucas, crying—and the tears were real. “When my mom came over that was the worst part. It was hard watching her on the video,” said Lara.

Fellow students told Lara they “lost it” when they saw her mother crying. “It was just so hard,” said Lara. “Even though we knew it wasn’t real, just to think that actually could happen.”

Friends asked Lara if her mother’s tears were real. “Yea, Mom was crying for real,” she responded.

Real emotions flooded Heather during the staged crash when police asked her to identify her daughter. “I can’t do this,” she told them.

Her daughter’s face looked grey and bloody. “It’s a parent’s worst nightmare. I worry about it every time they go out the door,” said Heather.

Later Heather thought, “I never want to do this again. I hope it impacted the kids as much as it did me.”

Lasting impact
The experience made Heather be more focused when driving. “Some of the things I didn’t pay attention to before, I pay attention to now . . . other cars, not talking as much when I drive, making sure passengers put seat belts on. Everything is different. It changed a lot for me.”

Kaleb Wake, a sophomore, played the part of the driver of the car that was hit by the drunk driver. “The whole experience was big,” he said. “When a friend told me afterwards, ‘It would be terrible if we lost you all.’ It made me feel like I matter to my group of friends.”

Kaleb summed up his attitude about driving like this, “Nothing you have to say or need me to do is worth my life or time while I’m driving. It can wait until I get home.”

Years ago, Kaleb’s dad was in a minor accident and didn’t come to the elementary school to pick him up, which was upsetting. “Daddy didn’t come to pick me up, and I didn’t know why.”

MHS assistant principal Susan Leggett added, “In a split second, it can all be gone.”

“Like Tasha,” added Kaleb. (LaTasha Scott, a 2011 MHS graduate, and her brother recently died in a crash.)

Taylor Wake, who filmed a school video of the crash reenactment, said, “I saw a lot of emotion” as he filmed, and when the mother identified her daughter, “It looked very real.”

Freshman Ridge Ellis acted as an injured person who stayed in the car when firefighters cut off the roof. Ellis who has a learner’s permit said the experience “makes me take extra precautions when driving.” It also made him more aware of what could happen.

RJ Matte played the part of the drunk driver. Uninjured, he was shocked as he surveyed the injuries at the scene. “What did I do? There are no do-overs,” he said. “Once you screw up, there’s no going back.”

A Virginia State Trooper made a mock arrest of RJ at the scene.

Later, RJ saw the video of Heather identifying her daughter’s body. “That hit home for me. If that were reality, I would have felt some kind of terrible. That made it sink in, that I had just taken someone else’s life,” said RJ.

The day after the crash reenactment, students saw films of courtroom reenactments where a man was sentenced for maiming as the result of an alcohol-related crash. “You could have heard a pin drop,” said Leggett.

The convicted man was scheduled to go to college, instead he went to jail.

In an instant
Leggett commented on what happens. “Not only do you change other people’s lives, you affect your own. Even if you walk away, your life is changed forever.”

The morning after the reenactment, Leggett came upon a student who had crashed on Route 33 near Locust Hill. The driver lost control and went across the median into the oncoming traffic lane.
“It can happen like that,” said Leggett, snapping her fingers.

She wasn’t texting or talking on a phone, noted Leggett. “So think about when you throw in drinking and driving, texting and talking how quickly things can go bad.”

The student told Leggett. “I’m so glad I had my seat belt on. I could have come out of the car if I hadn’t had my seat belt on. I know I really would have been banged up if I hadn’t had my seat belt on.”

Participating in the reenactment were all Middlesex County volunteer fire departments and rescue squads, Virginia State Police, and Bristow-Faulkner Funeral Home. 

posted 05.02.2012

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