As he directed emergency squads to the scene, the dispatcher’s voice over the radio was as calm as ever as he added an important disclaimer.
“We announced it’s a drill so we don’t have all your parents showing up here,” Andrew Glover of Morristown Police Department spoke into a megaphone to the hundreds of Lamoille Union students watching a re-enactment of a drunken driving car crash in the school’s parking lot last Friday.
That’s probably a good idea, because the scene was chaos, with drama students covered in fake blood playing the parts of passengers in the black sedan that had seemingly been hit head-on by a white minivan. One of the girls screamed that she thinks Jerry’s dead, while another lay motionless on the ground in a pool of blood that would later stick to the soles of first responders’ shoes.
“That’s actually very realistic blood,” Glover noted, grimacing.
The minivan driver, Sam, swayed back and forth, suitably dazed, in a high-schooler’s approximation of inebriation.
Watching silently over the proceedings, wrapped in a black cloak and holding a scythe, was death, the Grim Reaper, waiting patiently for the medical examiner to deliver her verdict on the sedan’s driver.
“I’ve got a pit in my stomach,” Principal Brian Schaffer said as he watched the parking lot fill with ambulances, fire trucks, police cruisers and, later, chillingly, a shiny black hearse that came to collect the bloodied mannequin, Jerry, “dead” in the driver’s seat.
There was a reason for the timing of the crash re-enactment, Schaffer said: The school prom was the next day.
Keith Flynn, head of the State Highway Safety division, said the agency doesn’t track whether crashes occur more frequently around high school prom or graduation, but safety officials are a little more vigilant around that time of year.
“It seems that, every few years, we have an incident that happens around graduation or around prom time, and we encourage people to make good decisions, and parents to make sure their kids make good decisions,” Flynn said.
He said police will often step up their patrols, just to be visible and act as a deterrent, but “law enforcement can only do so much.”
Drills like the one at Lamoille are held occasionally at other schools — it had been more than 15 years since Lamoille had hosted one — and they are a valuable eye-opening experience, he said.
“Remember, when you were 16, 17, 18?” Flynn asked. “You were indestructible.”
According to VTrans data, between 2012 and 2016, the most recent year for which comprehensive data is available, Lamoille County had 566 crashes.
In those crashes, 146 people were injured and nine were killed. Three more deaths occurred in that five-year period on or near Lamoille County’s borders.
Crashes by town during the period:
• Belvidere, 2
• Cambridge, 51
• Eden, 31
• Elmore, 9
• Hyde Park, 70
• Johnson, 39
• Morristown, 138
• Stowe, 200
• Waterville, 7
• Wolcott, 19
Flynn and Lamoille principal Schaffer said “messaging” is important for kids, whether it’s a PSA or a twisted wreck with fake blood and sirens. After the crash Friday, Schaffer addressed the students with a megaphone.
“Even though this was staged, physically, it doesn’t make a difference to me,” Schaffer told the students. “You all have the right to make your own decisions. We hope you make good ones.”
He pointed at the wreck: “Because that can be the end result.”
At least some students got it.
Abigail Laundry is the 11th-grader who played the Grim Reaper, but she’s also gaining experience in the medical field, as part of the Green Mountain Technical and Career Center’s allied health program. She said it’s good training — students learn about emergency response and nursing fields, about CPR and first aid. She said the tearing apart of the car was “stomach dropping.”
“I’ve been by crashes and I’ve been, like, ‘wow, that could have been me,’” she said.
Eighth-grader Mikey Wooten said it was “pretty cool” to watch, and wished the drill had actually shown the impact. He and his other middle school friends said that, as the drill progressed, it took a turn from being cool to grim.
“Normally you drive by this,” said Ashton Morell-Blake, a seventh-grader. “You don’t actually watch this.”
The crash re-enactment, aside from its intent as a jarring reminder of what can happen when a drunken driver crashes into you, was a valuable training exercise for everyone involved.
The Hyde Park Town Fire Department practiced using the hydraulic “jaws of life” to tear off the top of the sedan to extricate the driver or passengers. Johnson’s fire crews stood by with a tanker truck, dripping hose unfurled at the ready. Emergency crews from Morristown and Northern EMS were able to practice lifting an immobilized patient from the pavement onto a stretcher and into an ambulance.
At the beginning of the drill, when the only sounds came from the screaming teens, Glover’s narration and the murmuring high school student body, the initial aid came from within the school. Allied health students acted the part of first responders, placing bandages, offering consolation, checking the pupils’ pupils.
Sheriff’s deputies, one of them just a week out of the police academy, were able to practice sobriety exercises on a stumbling teen, placing handcuffs on him and putting him in the back of a squad car.
Dispatch received some practice in organizing the response — indeed, halfway through the drill, dispatch buzzed in to report a person had been hit in the parking lot of a Johnson gas station, and one of the sheriff’s cruisers peeled away from the fake crash scene to respond to the real one.
Then, black as the reaper, a hearse from Faith Funeral Home in Morrisville rolled up. Funeral director Mark Faith stepped out of the car, his neat suit incongruous among the dozens of other people on the scene. After the medical examiner deems a driver dead, there’s no need to use an ambulance.
A National Guard soldier at the scene said the funeral director normally uses a van, but a hearse has a more familiar and somber connotation to those watching.
Brad Carriere, assistant chief with the Hyde Park fire department, said the drill gives his crew a chance to work on their “auto extrication exercises” and work together with other agencies.
He said in fatal drunken driving crashes, it’s usually an innocent person who dies.
“It shows the students what can happen when you drink and drive. The results can be fatal, as you saw today.”
Carriere said every step taken in the drill is the same as it would be at a real crash. Even the number of people, although perhaps making the first responders a little nervous, isn’t alien to emergency workers who have to deal with traffic control in real situations, where drivers slow down and rubberneck to see the wreck.
“That’s our biggest fear, is the people that are gawking at us when they’re driving by, because they’re taking their eyes off the road, looking at us,” Carriere said. “So, they’re putting everyone that’s on that scene in jeopardy.”