More than 100 students at Banquete High School lined a road near the school's stadium recently and watched as one of their classmates was pulled from a wrecked vehicle and placed into a body bag.
The student's body was placed on a gurney and loaded into a hearse by funeral home employees, and the hearse slowly drove away.
Law enforcement personnel from the Texas Department of Transportation and the Pct. 5 Nueces County Constable's Office blocked traffic as a HALO Flight helicopter landed in a nearby field. Another classmate was loaded into the helicopter by emergency medical technicians and the students watched as the helicopter rose and flew away en route to CHRISTUS Spohn Memorial Hospital in Corpus Christi.
Rescue crews cut away parts of a second wrecked vehicle and removed a third student, who was gently loaded into a waiting ambulance and also sent to a Corpus Christi hospital.
The students would later learn that all of the classmates involved in the two-vehicle wreck had passed away as a result of a drunk driving accident.
Fortunately, this "accident" was staged, part of an alcohol-awareness program called "Shattered Dreams," sponsored by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission and the Coastal Bend Youth Alcohol Awareness Coalition. All of the students involved in the staged wreck were volunteers, and although the physical ordeal was simulated, the emotions they would experience over the next 24 hours were very real.
A program with a purpose
The "Shattered Dreams" program is a multi-agency, two-day operation that has the goal of warning high school students and parents about the dangers of drinking and driving.
And while the staged accident was a very visible part of the program, the lessons didn't end when the scene was cleared.
Karen Beard, the director of the program, explained that the "accident victims" actually were transported to the hospital. Once there, the students' parents were called to the hospital and were required to fulfill all of the procedures and paperwork that would be required in the case of a real accident. The same was true for the student who was taken to the funeral home, with parents required to identify the "body" and plan arrangements.
Throughout the remainder of the day, a TABC employee dressed as a Grim Reaper walked the hallways of Banquete High School, pulling a volunteer student out of class every 15 minutes to represent the one person lost to an alcohol-related accident an average of every 15 minutes in the United States. As those students were pulled from the classroom, a pre-written obituary about their life was read to their classmates.
One of those "walking dead" was Demmi Pickens, a senior at the high school. Pickens said the program was more than just an exercise for her.
"I recently just lost a friend two weeks ago, driving drunk," Pickens said. "It's really opened our eyes."
A personal message
The nearly 20 students who volunteered to participate in the program were kept at the school overnight, and they used the time to write letters to their parents. The following day, the entire student body and many parents gathered in the high school gymnasium for a symbolic "funeral." Standing at a podium behind a coffin, the students read the emotional letters to the families aloud for those assembled. Following the letters, a new speaker walked to the podium.
"This morning, when I walked in here and saw all of you parents here supporting your son or daughter - I envy each and every one of you. I wish I were in your shoes here today," said Velma Arellano, as she glanced at the portrait of a young man that had been placed next to the coffin.
Arellano told the story of July 23, 2010, the day her son, Rolando, was killed in a drunk driving accident. At just 17 years old, Rolando was preparing to enter his final year of high school at King High School in Corpus Christi.
Arellano said that Saturday began as a normal day, with Rolando completing some household chores and then leaving to play basketball with some friends. He later called and asked permission to go to a party that was being held in Flour Bluff that night, and Arellano and her husband Ted, a 25-year veteran of the Corpus Christi Police Department, reluctantly allowed him to go.
"He said, 'Mom, you worry too much. I'll be OK. I'm 17 years old mom. It's just a graduation party. Nothing's going to happen,'" Arellano said.
Shortly before midnight that night, Arellano got another call, this time from one of Rolando's friends.
"I can't understand what he's saying, he's all hysterical," Arellano said, pausing to gather her thoughts. "He said, 'Velma, Velma, there's been an accident.' He's crying."
Rolando, his friend Rudy, and two other boys were returning to his house in Rudy's new vehicle, a graduation gift, when the accident occurred. Rudy was driving at more than 100 mph just a short distance from the Arellanos' home when he lost control of the vehicle, Arellano said.
"They had all been drinking," Arellano said. "Rudy was the only one wearing a seatbelt. My son was ejected. The car rolled over on him three times. It broke his legs, crushed his chest and gave him severe head injuries."
When Arellano later demanded that doctors allow her to see her son, they reluctantly let her into the room where his body lay.
"I said, 'Let me see my son. Whatever's wrong, I can fix him. I'm his mother,'" Arellano said through tears. "When I saw my son, I didn't know how to fix his head. It was crushed. I wiped the blood out of his eyes, his ears, his nose… I couldn't fix him. I couldn't fix him."
Arellano closed with a plea to those in attendance to keep more stories like hers from happening in their own lives.
"That night, my life was turned upside down. My dreams were shattered," Arellano said. "Instead of making plans for a graduation, I was making plans for a funeral."
A 'life-changing event'
As students filed out of the gymnasium, most stopping to embrace their parents, many standing to the side and softly crying. The phrase all of them used to describe the experience was "life-changing."
For Pickens, who had been one of the "walking dead" the day before, the event was a jarring experience that brought back painful memories.
"It was very life-changing. I have actually drunk one time and drove home, but I won't ever do it again," Pickens said. "Never again. It could happen to anybody."
Joshua Riojas, a junior at Banquete High School who played the "drunk driver" responsible for the fake accident, said he began the program with a lot of enthusiasm.
"I was kind of eager to get into the program. We've all been in some situations where we've been offered a drink," Riojas said. "I figured it would be a good lesson, a good experience."
However, the emotion of the 48-hour program took its toll on him, Riojas said, and he began to experience a feeling he did not anticipate.
"The guilt," Riojas said. "Even though it was a mock accident, just the fact that I could have killed four of my friends."
Speaking before a group of parents and student volunteers in a meeting following the program, Coastal Bend Youth Alcohol Awareness Coalition member Pat Guernsey told parents they needed to be mindful of the impact the program would have on their children.
"Your children are not the same people you dropped off yesterday," Guernsey said "They've been through too much in the past 24 hours. They're just not."
A lasting change
Nancy Mooney, the principal at Banquete High School, said the idea to bring the program to Banquete was initiated by a student, Matthew Pena.
"We have had accidents here in Banquete in the past, and we have lost several students in car accidents," Mooney said. "I believe that's what brought about the idea."
And while the rural nature of the Banquete Independent School District protects it from some of the dangers found in bigger cities, Mooney said her school is not immune to the problems of teenage drinking.
"I think every school in the State of Texas has that problem, in terms of underage drinking," Mooney said. "With graduation and Spring Break fast approaching, we figured we needed to send a message out there."
Mooney said the school is already planning a follow-up to the program to be held before graduation, and she believes the program brought real change to the attitudes of students and parents in Banquete.
"I really believe that our students are going to think twice before they get into a car with a drunk driver or after drinking themselves," Mooney said. "How long the impact will last, I can't tell you. But I can tell you it will definitely have an impact on them."