B y Derek Liebig
The screams coming from the mangled wreckage of the car were audible from nearly 50 yards away.
Jen Bealmear and one of her best friends, Katie Barrett had just been struck by a drunk driver on Buckley Road. Bealmear was screaming for help; her friend was silent.
Within minutes, emergency response crews from both local fire departments, the Skenesborough EMS and the Whitehall Police Department arrived on scene and extracted Bealmear from the vehicle. But it was too late for Barrett.
Three young peoples’ lives ruined. Barrett dead, Bealmear left to cope with the tragedy, and Mindy Trombley, who had been drinking and driving, escorted away by Police Chief Matt Dickinson, facing the possibility of up to 15 years in jail and a lifetime of guilt.
Fortunately for everyone involved, the entire scene was staged, part of a mock extraction held at Whitehall High School Friday afternoon.
The blood smeared on Bealmear’s face was corn starch, Barrett was fine and Trombley hadn’t been drinking and driving.
Despite being fake, the scene and the emotions it stirred were all too real for some of those involved.
Tim Lang, a member of the Whitehall Volunteer Fire Company, helped organize the first mock crash last year.
“My son was involved in an alcohol related crash,” he said. “We want the kids to understand the dangers involved.”
Crews from the fire departments demonstrated how they remove people from an accident, breaking out windows, jacking up cars and using the ‘jaws of life” to cut the vehicle apart.
Crews from the EMS rushed “victims” into an ambulance all while Lang and Dickinson walked around telling (in some cases, warning) students what was happening.
The scene was just part of what has become an annual presentation on the dangers of driving drunk or distracted.
Students from the Junior and Senior class gathered in the auditorium prior to the accident to listen to a presentation by Washington County Deputy Sheriff Bob Sullivan.
During the presentation, Sullivan hit on what he calls the “big three”: drinking, cell phone use (esp. texting) and speed.
He showed students several slides and videos that detailed the dangers of texting, including an “AT&T Safety Video” that relayed the plight of three people involved in accidents caused by texting while driving.
Sullivan told students that a Virginia Tech study found that an average text takes 4.6 seconds, enough time for a car to travel the length of a football field.
“4.6 seconds is long enough to kill,” he said.
His presentation then turned to the subject of drinking and driving.
“I started this program because of roadside memorials like this,” Sullivan said, pointing to the screen. “I spent weeks chasing students away from this memorial who were hanging out drinking in the victim’s memory. Society uses alcohol as a problem solver, but it’s a depressant and the problem doesn’t go away. It’s like adding water to water.”
To drive home his point, Sullivan, a Salem resident and volunteer fire fighter, told the kids about an accident involving alcohol that he responded to in his home town.
As he pulled up to the scene, he could see the headlights of a vehicle pointing straight into the air. As he got closer, he was approached by an officer at the scene telling him he shouldn’t come any further.
The accident had been fatal and the victim was Sullivan’s brother.
That story and the mock crash that followed showed just how serious drinking and driving can be.
“It was disgusting and scary, especially when your actual best friend is right next to you. You can’t see anything,” said Bealmear, who explained that her mother was struck by a drunk driver.
“You need to understand the seriousness….it’s life or death. The decisions you make could be fatal,” Sullivan said.
“You have to use your head. You don’t get a second chance in life.”