The auditorium of 600 chattering high school students fell silent as a girl’s frantic voice called for help, describing an accident that had just occurred. Red and blue lights started dimly flashing and emergency sirens grew louder.
The next 20 minutes were not what these students were expecting on what had first appeared to be an average school day.
This is how the Superstition Fire and Medical District began its mock-crash seminar at Apache Junction High School, 2525 S. Ironwood Drive, on the morning of April 8.
Students in the audience inside the high school’s performing arts center watched as firefighters pulled three bloody bodies — the students’ peers — out of a wrecked car, tearing the car open in the process. One person hung through the shattered windshield.
There was one fatality and two others with serious injuries. The car’s driver bled from his head, but remained conscious, according to SFMD Battalion Chief Jeff Cranmer, the event’s narrator.
This scene depicted the aftermath of a staged accident involving four Apache Junction students who had attended prom, and then hung out together drinking alcohol afterward. The accident scene “took place” at Baseline and Ironwood roads, just down the street from their school.
The firefighters who rescued the students removed two beer bottles that had been inside the car and set them down on the stage in front of the car.
Mr. Cranmer continued narrating step-by-step as the firefighters and first-responders covered the deceased body with a sheet, treated the other two students for injuries and carried them away to an ambulance, and as they tried to console the driver who was distraught after the accident.
On stage was not only the wrecked car, but also a SFMD truck with flashing lights, about 10 fire and medical crew members with all of their medical equipment, hydraulic rescue tools, also known as “the Jaws of Life”; and two stretchers.
This seminar, named Deadly Distractions, was created by Tina Gerola, SFMD fire and life safety specialist.
Ms. Gerola wanted to keep the seminar a secret from the student body at AJHS as best as she could.
“I don’t want anyone to have a preconceived idea of what’s going on,” said Ms. Gerola during a phone interview on March 18.
While other schools have conducted mock-car crashes, this one was unique because it was presented inside on a stage.
“I’m putting a different spin on it and bringing it inside. Usually they are on the football field and the scene will be covered,” said Ms. Gerola. “I’m hoping to captivate attention.”
High school junior Bryan Wilson said he was unaware of what the students were about to watch (before the assembly started).
“Our coach just told us to come here,” said Bryan. He said he assumed it might be about drugs, guessing from the signs put up by the Apache Junction Drug Prevention Coalition when the students were walking in the doors. The drug coalition and other local groups distributed pamphlets to students who were entering and exiting the building.
The audience sat through a handful of short videos about prescription drugs, drinking alcohol and texting and driving. Words on the screen flashed “Summer 2015. How will yours end? It’s your life – It’s your choice” before the crash began.
The car’s driver, high school drama student Ty Rutkowski, said he was excited when the four actors started working on Deadly Distractions.
“I didn’t realize how realistic it was going to be. I didn’t think they were going to take the hood (of the car) off,” said Ty. “This was the first time running through the whole thing. It was really an eye-opening experience.”
The seminar was not just the mock crash, however. Ms. Gerola invited Richard and Kathy Matthews to talk to the audience about their daughter Stephanie.
They were joined on stage by Stephanie’s brothers and a cousin, students at AJHS.
Mr. and Mrs. Matthews very emotionally told the audience the story of their 19-year-old daughter who drove off a cliff around 6 a.m. on her way to work.
“It’s been three years and I still ask ‘why?’ every day,” said Mrs. Matthews.
Mr. Matthews said Stephanie was only three miles from home.
“Something distracted her, we will never know exactly what it was. It wasn’t drinking and driving, and it wasn’t texting,” said Mr. Matthews.
The Superstition Fire and Medical crew joined the Matthews on stage, as Mr. Matthews finished by saying, “We are here to tell you our story, in hopes that you will remember how important life is. A little distraction while you are driving can be deadly. If you don’t take this seriously, these are the people who are going to be standing over you as we strap (you) to a backboard or even worse, put you into a body bag.”
After Deadly Distractions ended, Apache Junction police officer Marty Harshman stood outside offering students the chance to try vision-impairment goggles.
Junior Trevor Kelley attempted to walk a straight line while wearing the goggles, recreating what a drunk driver would be asked to do during a sobriety test. He was not very successful.
“It (Deadly Distractions) was sad,” said Trevor. “I just know I’ll never text and drive or drink and drive.”
Trevor said he has never had an alcoholic beverage, and especially after watching Deadly Distractions is not interested in them.
For more information, call the Superstition Fire and Medical Distrcit office at 480-982-4440.
Reach staff writer Melissa Fittro at firstname.lastname@example.org