Students at Del Norte High School were given a sobering look at the immediate aftermath of a drinking and driving collision with a mid-morning reenactment in the middle of the Arlington Drive/ Washington Blvd intersection Thursday.
When the dramatization began, students saw classmate Anthony Slayton, lying face down in the road, surrounded by broken car glass, behind a crashed Subaru wagon. A red puddle had formed on the pavement next to his head. All students quieted immediately to see student Riley Nelson burst from the passenger side of the car and limp around to where Slayton lay motionless.
Pleading for him to respond, she dropped to her knees and rolled him over, exposing his bloody face and red-soaked clothing as an audible reaction went through the crowd.
Nelson went back to the car to plead with the driver, before grabbing her cell phone to call 911. The call could be heard by all students, as Nelson’s shaky voice struggled to describe the scene to the dispatcher.
When the call ended, she tossed the phone aside and went back into the car. Her frantic voice could be heard, but barely understood as she tried to help her friends.
With only a cut on his nose, Leonardo Contreas appeared almost in shock as he slowly exited the driver’s door and walked to the back of the car where Slayton lay, still not moving. In the distance, a host of sirens approached fast as a CHP cruiser and fire trucks sped down Washington Blvd.
CHP Officer Brian Cook sized up the scene as firefighters poured out of the engines and around the car.
A quick assessment of Slayton’s condition confirmed the worst prognosis before fire personnel worked around him to extricate the sole remaining passenger, Lori Frenier.
Meanwhile, Nelson looked on from next to the fire engine as Contreas was taken aside by Officer Cook. A lengthy field sobriety test ensued, with Contreas touching his nose, following the officer’s finger, walking a straight line and taking a breathalyzer test.
Back at the car, Crescent City Fire and Rescue personnel found the left rear door jammed and brought out their extrication equipment. To make more room for personnel, firefighters cut the roof away and peeled it back to expose a bleeding Frenier, who was wearing a C-Spine collar and being helped by fire paramedics.
Once out of the car, she was secured to a backboard and put into a waiting Del Norte Ambulance with Nelson.
The sobriety test concluded as the ambulance rushed the two away.
The actions of Wier Mortuary personnel were more careful than urgent as they zipped Slayton in a body bag and loaded him onto a gurney.
Contreas was told he’d failed the sobriety tests and was being arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol. He was placed in the CHP cruiser and taken to Del Norte County Jail.
Students would later be told that Frenier died at the hospital.
While none of the students involved were injured or killed, the dramatization discharges the notion that such tragic events only happen to others.
Students weren’t aware that while the makeup, the car crash, emergency response and fatal injuries were staged, Thursday’s Every 15 minutes presentation was a re-enactment of a real event that happened in 1999.
At an assembly in the gym Friday morning, students learned the following day that the scene was designed to mimic a fatal crash from 20 years ago.
Beau Smith, a local logger, Crescent City firefighter, and father of three teen daughters, told students that in April 1999, he was the driver in an impaired driving collision that crash took the life of his best friend, Chris.
“He would have been the best man at my wedding,” Smith said, showing a slide from the night Chris passed away.
Smith explained that he and Friends were drinking and partying near Patrick’s Creek before going to sleep.
“I woke up a few hours later, thought I was fine, asked the others if they were ready to go,” he said. “Two other friends of ours were at that party, asked if they could have a ride, too.” Smith explained that the four of them drove from Patrick’s Creek to Hiouchi.
Smith said Chris had crawled into the rear area of the vehicle and gone to sleep.
“I got woken up with ‘Hey, let’s go, lets go,’” he said. “I didn’t make it a mile down the road before I fell asleep at the wheel.” Smith said his intoxication contributed to his falling asleep.
“I didn’t know I had crashed or that my best friend had passed away,” he said. “I was a teenager and it was time to own up to my mistake.” He said he told the investigating officer he’d drank the night before.
“I had to look at his mom when she was at the hospital and tell her what happened,” he said. “I don’t wish that on anybody...”
He said he also thought at the time about how his own mother must have felt about knowing what her son had done.
“It never goes away, never,” he said, later noting that the conviction affected his life for years to come, preventing him from getting a commercial license or joining the fire department. Smith said he had not seen the CHP report until a few weeks ago, noting an entry which said Chris would likely have survived if he’d been wearing a seat belt.
“I was a little scared to do this because of the things I do in the community,” he said. “I didn’t want it to shed a bad light on the things I do now, but I hope you guys get something out of it.”
Throughout the school day Thursday, students were pulled from various classes by a Reaper, played by CHP Cmdr. Larry Depee, to represent teen victims of alcohol related collisions. Sunset High School teacher Robyn Parker noted students who had been pulled from classes throughout the day Thursday had spent the night at a retreat “without their cell phones.” Parker suggested other students reunite with them and communicate about their experiences at the retreat.
Some of the removed students read letters they had written to loved ones, which were written as if they had died. Letters expressed regret for their actions and love for those left behind.
Technical difficulties prevented a dramatic video of the crash and aftermath from being shown in its entirety, but will be shown to students Monday.
CHP Officer and E15M Coordinator Brandy Gonzalez said planning for this presentation started back in September. Aside from the video malfunction, Gonzalez said she felt the presentation went well when it came to offering a realistic presentation and getting the point across to students.
Every 15 Minutes is conducted by the California Highway Patrol and funded by the Office of Traffic Safety, to offer a dramatic and emotional lesson about the effects of impaired driving.
“They know the intellectual statistics,” according to the CHP website. “However, many teens share the belief it will never happen to them. This powerful program is designed to create an awareness among students that they are not invincible.”
According to the website, the program opens those emotional doors as it informs kids of how their actions can affect their own lives and the lives of others.
When the program was created about 20 years ago, it was based on the premise that every 15 minutes, someone in the U.S. dies from and alcohol-related collision. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Association, that number has gone down to one every 48 minutes, as of 2018.