Year after year, local high schools host a mock crash prior to their proms in hopes of deterring students from consuming alcohol, and more importantly, not getting behind the wheel of a vehicle with someone who has been drinking.
This year is no different, as Elk County Catholic HIgh School played host to the sobering event, which took place Tuesday afternoon in the school's parking lot.
A variety of emergency teams participated in the event, including the Crystal Fire Department, St. Marys Ambulance Service, City of St. Marys Police Department (SMPD), Elk County Coroner Lou Radkowski and STAT MedEvac.
The event began as juniors and seniors gathered inside the auditorium, where seniors Kacie Yost and Danielle Catalano explained the purpose of the event and provided statistics on teen drinking and driving.
As part of the program entitled "Drunk Driving; a life taken too soon," a video was shown featuring the student crash participants as they prepared to go to prom, including the group gathering at a friend's house to eat dinner and pose for prom photos. The video culminates by insinuating that the group's two vehicles crashed into one another in ECCHS’s parking lot.
"This is very real in dealing with the prom, something you will deal with this weekend," noted Mrs. Anderson, faculty member and project adviser. "This is a very serious occasion."
Among this year's participants were Joshua Gebauer and Benjamin Crowe, who were fatalities; Taylor Frank, who incurred critical injuries and was lifeflighted from the scene; Karly Carnovale, who was injured and transported via St. Marys Ambulance; drunk driver David Bojalad and drunk passenger Jared Schaut, along with fellow passengers Megan Fritz and Chloe VanEerden; Anna Hawkins and Sam Schneider, who were the first witnesses upon the scene; as well as parents Dana and Greg Gebauer, Jane and Ed Crowe, Janet VanEerden and Carly Frank, sister of Taylor. Fr. Ross Miceli, ECCHS campus minister, was also on hand to provide counseling and religious support to parents at the scene.
As in past years, students watched the scene unfold as St. Marys Police Chief Todd Caltagarone narrated the events as they happened and explained each step of the process.
"In real life, all of this would be happening simultaneously," noted Caltagarone.
All radio communication between emergency personnel and county control was broadcast over loudspeakers for students to hear.
Upon converging in the parking lot, students witnessed the all-too-realistic scene involving two wrecked cars, injured passengers and two fatally wounded students.
As a twist to the program, firefighter and Elk County Prison warden Greg Gebauer responded to the scene, where his son was one of the victims.
"'Who is it?' is one of the first things that comes to our minds when we respond to an accident scene," said Crystal Fire Department Deputy Chief Mike Kraus. "The reality is what happened today could happen any day. This is particularly difficult for us as responders."
During the event, several students were visibly shaken by the realization of the events taking place.
Students also witnessed police personnel conduct a field sobriety test on Bojalad, the drunk driver. He was found to be intoxicated and was charged with driving under the influence, handcuffed and arrested. Schaut was also taken into custody for having been intoxicated as a minor.
Following the crash, students once again gathered inside the auditorium, where a mock funeral service was held for the victims. Andrew Wolfe, senior, presented the eulogy for Crowe, while Schneider eulogized Gebauer. Musical slideshows were shown featuring photos of each of the victims.
Lynch-Green Funeral Home provided two hearses and two coffins for the scene. Members of the ECC football team carried in Gebauer's casket, while members of the basketball team carried in Crowe's casket. The teams were each dressed in their matching squad sweatshirts. Each student was provided with a funeral program which included photos of the victims, Bible verses, song lyrics and a poem, as well as such statistics such as: "During one normal class period, one person will die in a drunk-driving accident." At the conclusion of the program, students had the opportunity to pose questions to the numerous emergency personnel on hand.
"The sheer magnitude of the decisions we have to make in a short amount of time is one of the most difficult aspects of the job," noted Deputy Coroner Bert Sorg. "As deputy coroner, it's not dealing with the dead, but the people they leave behind. Telling a parent they have lost a child is one of the hardest things I have ever had to do in my life."
Officer Greg McManus explained the duties of the police at a crash, which include securing the scene and obtaining as much information as possible for their investigation.
"We have to make sure no one takes any items away from the scene or even adds things to it, which we have had happen," McManus said. "We can spend hours at a scene afterwards."
Crystal Fire Department Chief Bill Kraus noted there are times when parents arrive on the scene before or at the same time as emergency personnel, due in part to minors contacting them before they call 911. He said that with the popularity of cell phones, this is becoming more common.
Sorg added that cell phones are posing a great risk as well. He stated that as drunk driving is down among teens, accidents related to carelessness are on the rise.
Chief Kraus cited the hard work of Doug Mawn, rescue captain, in acting as the mock crash program coordinator.
"It is my pleasure working with the students and it is interesting to see how they try to bring different elements to the event and how those elements evolve," Mawn said. "Hopefully by bringing you this program, we try to eliminate the amount of bad decisions made."