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The Grim Reaper watches silently as the scene unfolds and students crowded on to the front lawn of Portola High School listen to announcements stating that their classmates, Liam and Cassandra, were “deceased” due to an alcohol related vehicle accident.

Portola High School students experience realistic vehicle crash drill during Every 15 Minutes program

The morning of Wednesday, May 31 started off like most other days for the students at Portola Junior/Senior High School, with students filing through the entrance and trickling into classrooms, many excitedly looking towards a swiftly approaching graduation ceremony. As the school spilled out onto the front lawn later in the morning, however, faces became somber as the students were met with a realistic, staged crash scene — part of a nationwide “Every 15 Minutes” program sponsored by the CHP in California and local emergency responders. The goal of “Every 15 Minutes” is to encourage students to really think about drinking, driving, personal safety, the responsibility of making mature decisions and the impact their decisions have on family, friends, their community and beyond. The name of the program is rooted in the statistic that someone is killed by an alcohol related vehicle accident every 15 minutes.
 
Held at a different Plumas County high school each year, Portola High hosted the program over two days May 31 and June 1, with help from an assorted coalition of interested local agencies such as the California Highway Patrol (CHP), Plumas County Sheriff’s Office (PSCO), Care Flight, Beckwourth Fire and Eastern Plumas Health Care (EPHC).
Students at the scene of the mock two-car crash looked on as students Maddox Wilson and Jacob Juarez, playing the roles of DUI driver and passenger, respectively, climb slowly out of their “wrecked vehicle” in “inebriated” confusion, stumbling towards the other car involved in the “accident” in front of Portola High School during the 2023 Every 15 Minutes program held Wednesday, May 31 and Thursday, June 1.
Photos by Lauren Westmoreland
 
 
Students at the scene of the mock two-car crash looked on as students Maddox Wilson and Jacob Juarez, playing the roles of DUI driver and passenger, respectively, climbed slowly out of their “wrecked vehicle” in “inebriated” confusion, stumbling toward the other car involved in the “accident” by the school.
 
The Grim Reaper approaches the “two car pileup” with two long stemmed red roses to place upon “victim” student Cassandra Torres.
Sirens began to scream in the background as the two young men realized in horror that the passengers of the other car were two of their classmates, Liam Bowling and Cassandra Torres. The two “victims” were unmoving and covered in movie-makeup blood, with Torres stretched out through the broken windshield and across the crumpled hood of the “victim vehicle.” Wilson and Juarez clung to each other as they attempted to “sober up” while Beckwourth Fire Department volunteers arrived to assist the CHP and PCSO with removing the “victims” from their vehicle with the Jaws of Life.
 
Members of Beckwourth Fire District utilize the Jaws of Life to cut through the twisted metal and extract the “victim” students from their vehicle.
 
The situation became more intense as a loudspeaker crackled, and over the sound of a CareFlight helicopter landing nearby, the announcement was made that Bowling and Torres were deceased, giving a small statement for each “student victim.” The Grim Reaper stepped out from a line of “Living Dead” students that had been standing nearby observing the ‘fatal crash,’ silently gliding toward the crash scene and placing a single red rose on each of the “deceased” students, and many of those observing from the lawn of the school wiped tears from their eyes. Student Wilson was then taken through a sobriety test before being “booked” on felony driving under the influence and made a very realistic trip to the jail in Quincy while the crash scene was cleaned up.
Portola High School student and “DUI passenger” Jacob Juarez watches the dramatic extraction of the “victims” as he awaits his own “medical care” during the intense scenario in front of the high school.
 
 
After the shocking mock accident, other students were abruptly pulled from class for the rest of the day, every 15 minutes, and designated to be victims. The mock “deceased” students spent the night away from their families writing farewell letters to family members, simulating the feeling of what it would be like to have or be the loved one suddenly snatched away from life, without warning.
Student “victim” driver Liam Bowling is placed carefully on a stretcher as emergency medical staff rush him towards Eastern Plumas Health Care in Portola.
 
 
The second day of the program found students and families gathered in the gym at Portola High School for a realistic ‘eulogy’ assembly. The lights were dimmed down and the students that were chosen as ‘Living Dead’ filed out silently with the Grim Reaper, each carrying a lit candle and moving past a casket as they went toward their seats. Each candle then went out, one after the next, as the Grim Reaper softly touched each students’ shoulder. An emotionally moving film was then shown, giving a timeline of the fictitious events that had led to the “accident,” showing scenes of carefree PHS students gathered together for a “party” in the hours leading up to the staged incident.
 
Student “DUI Driver” Maddox Wilson is put through a field sobriety test by CHP Officer Wilmer in front of the silent, watching crowd.
 
When the film ended, a few students from those who participated in the program were able to stand before the assembly and read letters they had written to their loved ones as a “dead” person. Student Alyssa Clover read out her letter to her father, saying tearfully, “Dad, words can’t describe how much I appreciate you…I am sorry I never got a chance to say this in person. Mom, I am so sorry for it all — I wish I could go back in time and take a different route.”
The watching crowd of students, teachers and family members turn to look at the Care Flight helicopter lifting up from behind the school, headed towards Eastern Plumas Health Care bearing an “injured student.”
 
 
One parent, Carrie Bowling, spoke to her “deceased” child, voice thick with emotion as she questioned how such a thing could have happened.“Everything was taken from us because of one bad, irreversible decision,” Bowling said. “I feel cheated…we had so many dreams for you and now you’ll never see your eighteenth or twenty first birthday. Dad and I will never be the same without you.”
 
 
 
The Every 15 Minutes program originated in Canada, and the goal of the program is to reduce alcohol-related incidents among youth. Strong partnerships between law enforcement, emergency medical responders, schools, local hospitals and businesses validate the importance of working together to ensure a healthy community, and with funding available from the California Office of Traffic Safety, the CHP provides mini-grants to schools and organizations statewide to operate the program..
 
 
This powerful, moving two-day program was organized by a steering committee that included CHP Officer Seth Preston, PCSO Detective C. Vickrey, and CHP Officer Janae Kent. The committee worked with over 20 local agencies, businesses and community leaders to host the program. A four-member PHS student committee was also key to the success of the event.
 
“I think the program is different for every group,” Preston said of the event. “This year I think it had a profound impact on the students and parents involved, as well as students and parents that weren’t involved. I think it is always important to remind kids how fragile life is, and that in the blink of an eye it can be over. Throughout the years, we have seen how this program has made significant changes in the kids’ lives and in their decision making- I don’t think this year is any different.”
 
Preston went on to give special thanks to Care Flight, Beckwourth Fire, Crescent Towing, Plumas County Sheriff’s Office and Graeagle Vacation Rentals for helping bring the 2023 program to life.
 
 
Portola High School students who participated in this year’s Every 15 Minutes program and served in leadership roles include Rayne Wallace, Margaret Klemesrud, Peyton Wicks, Lily Henson, Jailla Danielson, Dylan Dodson, Nadia Ekkelboom, Emily Hughes, Bailee Keena, Chloe Kelly, Andrew Pfingston, Hayden Preston-Tuccori, Dylan Sheridan, Jonathan Stewart, Ansley Tanguay and Lilliana Thurman.
Program Supporters include Eastern Plumas Health Care, California Highway Patrol, Plumas County Sheriff’s Office, Carey Candy Company, Beckwourth Fire Department, Blairs Mortuary, Crescent Towing, Rico’s Mexican Food, Lambert and Lambert Insurance, Plumas Ace Hardware, Millie’s Coffee and Chocolates, Careflight, Mya Wilson, R3 Concrete, Gumbas, Graeagle Vacation Rentals, Tom and Carol Joyce, Image Perspectives, Plumas Unified School District, Sierra Pacific Industries, Amy Carey “In Honor of Quincy Fire Chief Frank Carey” and Bell Lane Baked Goods.  

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