Mock crash shocks VUHS students

VERGENNES –– The scene behind Vergennes Union High School was horrifying. Shattered glass littered the ground around two totaled cars. A teenage girl lay unconscious on the hood of one car. Other teens were slumped in their seats, covered in blood.
It seemed real ­­­­­­–– and that was the intended effect.
VUHS held a mock car crash last Thursday. The event was organized by driver education teacher Sandra J. Chicoine and local fire cadets, and served as a timely reminder of the dangers of drinking and driving around graduation.
“There are actually more fatalities around graduation than on prom night,” Chicoine said.
The mock crash involved two cars; Vergennes, Addison and Ferrisburgh fire departments; Vergennes Police; Vermont State Police; Vergennes Area Rescue; and seven student actors.
Chicoine described the fictional sequence of events at the beginning of the assembly. One student, eager to get to a graduation party, took a dare from his friend to speed as fast as he could around the school. Their car collided head-on with another car full of students.
One of the actors, Megan Stearns, called 911. Soon after, the fire departments, police and rescue squads arrived.
They proceeded as if the crash were real as more than 300 VUHS students looked on.
The school’s first mock car crash was three years ago. Chicoine and Trevor Patterson, student and fire cadet, decided it was time for another, especially with graduation looming.
“We started it because we felt a need to have a visual demonstration of what it’s like to be a victim in a car crash, how long it takes for them to actually get you out of the car, to actually have the fire personnel and the rescue personnel show up at the scene, and how it feels to be a friend who is trying to help out, who comes upon the scene and realizes the extent of the injuries and the impact of what’s going on,” Chicoine said.
Patterson, the lead student organizer of the project, understood the event’s importance and put a lot of effort into preparing for the mock crash.
“We brought the idea to the school in the middle of this year, then we just basically communicated with the fire department,” he said. “We organized the entire thing. We got both the cars and we got the fire departments to come.”
Chicoine acknowledged the potential impact of the event for students, because many assume such a crash could never happen to them.
“It’s to provide awareness that making bad decisions in a vehicle could result in this, and that this could be very real and has been very real in our school and schools all over the country,” she said. “It’s not something that’s not going to happen here; it has happened here before.”
To prove this point, Chicoine asked faculty members at the follow-up discussion to stand if they had worked at a school that had suffered a fatal car crash. Twelve stood, demonstrating the unfortunate reality of teen crashes.
The mock crash was a powerful alternative to simply telling students not to drink and drive.
“You’re in school listening to teachers all day long, it’s just auditory,” said Chicoine. “With this, you’re sitting there in that crowd and you’re looking at them cut that roof off (the car). I heard a couple kids say, holy cow that takes a long time if you’re in there hurt, when you’re in that much pain.”
Student actor Jordan Grant agreed.
“I think that having the crash actually sunk in more than just having someone tell you that you shouldn’t drink and drive, you shouldn’t text and drive,” he said. “Actually seeing it will stick with your mind longer; having the visual memory of seeing it instead of just hearing it.”
Students did get verbal reminders from local police officers and firefighters, reinforcing the effect of the crash.
“Don’t think that this is unrealistic, because this is exactly what it looks like,” said Vermont State Police Senior Trooper Andrew Leise. “You all have the opportunity to graduate, so be responsible and make the right decisions.”
Ferrisburgh fire chief Bill Wager echoed the importance of good decision making.
“All it takes is one bad decision that can change a lot of lives in just moments,” he said. “So I hope everybody can take the time to think about that every time you get behind the wheel of a car.”
The most powerful statement came from David DiBiase, VUHS ’04, now a member of the Vergennes Fire Department.
He spoke of his experience at fatal crashes and the tragedies that result.
“There’s nothing harder in your life than having to bury your friends,” he said. “You guys are seniors in high school, you have great friends, and there would be nothing harder ever than seeing them in a funeral home.”
The combined effect of the mock crash and warnings from professionals seemed to have a profound effect on the students.
Chicoine, Grant and Stearns noted that as the assembly went on, the fidgety crowd quieted down and became more focused on the scene in front of them.
Stearns discussed acting in such a tragic mock accident.
“Actually being on the phone with the person saying you need to stay on the line while we get some help, and seeing the condition people were in, and seeing a girl who I’d gone to school with for a while laying on the hood of the car, that just really had a big impact,” she said. “It was really hard. I was crying because it seemed like it was really serious.”
Grant also talked about the severity of the situation and its effect on him. He acted as the driver of the car that caused the accident, and saw one of his good friends die and his sister rushed away in an ambulance.
“Getting out of the car when the police took me out and seeing my friends, and definitely my sister, laying down on the ground with a blanket over them because they weren’t going to make it definitely sunk in and did something for me,” he said.
Grant’s mother, Jill, who is part of Town Line First Response, was in the audience and watched Grant and his sister, Chelsea, play big roles in the mock accident.
The scene had a particularly poignant effect on her, as she watched police arrest her son for DUI and rescue personnel take her daughter away in an ambulance.
“As a parent it was very hard to watch,” she said. “I’ve been on rescue for eight years and when the tones go out you know it’s something serious. Seeing my own kids in there, even though I know it wasn’t real, was very hard.”
The crash’s organizers and participants thought the event had the intended effect.
“I think it really impacted the people doing it, and I hope the crowd was impacted by it more than just watching a video or something like that,” Stearns said.
Chicoine was happy with the effort put into the event and especially so with her students’ work.
“I’m really proud of all of our fire cadets that worked through this,” she said. “Trevor Patterson was our lead student involved in organizing and he spent a lot of time working on it because he knows how important it is. I am so proud of all the victims, student actors.”
Grant believed the assembly’s importance was not lost on his classmates.
“I hope people in the crowd were thinking of their friends and what could happen,” he said, “and that it could happen to anybody.”

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