Published in the Current
Despite last-minute “concessions” required by adults nervous about causing unnecessary anxiety, a fake drunk-driving car crash that “killed” two kids and “injured” five in Cape Elizabeth made its point.
“At first it was going to be a surprise,” said Katie Tammaro, one of the student organizers and an accident victim. They had approval and assistance from town and school officials.
“Under a week left, that was changed on us,” said another student organizer, Alex Weaver.
In a meeting with high school Principal Jeff Shedd, it became clear that an explanatory letter would have to go home with all students in advance. “It had been a surprise everywhere else” the program was conducted, including Deering High School, Old Town and Wells, Weaver said.
A local lawyer had also called the Cape Coalition – the group of parents and students organized in town to address substance abuse who organized last week’s crash – to express concern that a surprise event would cause “unnecessary trauma or unnecessary anxiety.”
Weaver said they had expected hurdles and challenges, but were not prepared for feedback on the event two days before it happened, before people had a
chance to see it unfold.
In the end, advance notice may not have made much difference. “It worked anyways, and we’ll never know,” said Tammaro. “People were still captured and were very emotional,” Weaver said.
At the accident scene
One student, who asked that her name not be used, was in tears.
“There’s so many kids that do this (drink and drive) and don’t even think about it,” she said.
She had known about the event beforehand, but was unexpectedly overcome by emotions, memories and fear. “I thought I’d be fine with coming up
here” to see the accident, she said through her tears. “This really affects you.”
“It’s so scary,” she said. “People just don’t think that this sort of thing can happen. They think Cape is small – they can make it home” after being out drinking.
Superintendent Tom Forcella was at the crash scene. “I’m hoping the kids get the message,” he said. “Not drinking, versus not drinking and driving. A designated driver is not enough.”
“It was scary. I felt it was real,” said Tammaro, who had been inside one of the cars. She was showered with glass, but not injured, when rescue workers cut the roof off the car she was in.
During the school day, to drive home the point that every 15 minutes a person in the U.S. dies in an alcohol-related accident, student volunteers were pulled out of class, handed a tag with a time of death and given a black shirt to wear. Now considered “dead,” the student was not supposed to talk all day.
At lunch, however, a table filled with black-shirted people played blackjack.
After school, the “dead” students and their parents wrote letters to each other to describe their feelings. The letters began, “Today I died. I never got the chance to tell you…”
The morning after
At a school-wide assembly the following morning, the two students who had “died” in the accident, and their parents, read their letters aloud.
Many seniors were not there to hear. Attendance was not mandatory, but the lack of seniors didn’t worry Tammaro, as long as the younger students were there.
“Those are the people we’re going to affect the most,” she said.
Weaver said he had feared more would skip the assembly. “There were a lot of naysayers,” he said. “When it actually came (to the event), a lot of those same people were there.”
Derek Roy told his parents, “Of all the thankless things you have done for me over the years, not a single one went unnoticed.”
His mother said, “We’re relieved that we told you that we love you because yesterday morning was the last time that we saw you.”
Chris Owens, who had played the part of drunk driver in the accident, read his letter. “Many of us have chosen to drink,” he said. This time was different: “My friend is dead.” He backed away from criticizing teen drinking, saying “I don’t want to intrude on your lifestyle,” but asked students not to drink and drive.
Then Emily McConnell got up to speak, to tell Cape students about her own experience, when her brother Nathaniel and two other teens were killed when their friend, driving drunk, flipped a car off Tukey’s Bridge in January 2002.
“I woke up on the morning of Jan. 13 to hear my mother screaming, ‘Nathaniel and Crystal are dead. Nathaniel and Crystal are dead.’”
“At 18 years old I had to help write my brother’s obituary,” she said. At the funeral home, “I tried to stroke his cheek, but it was cold.”
“Now we have two lives,” she told the audience. “The one before the accident and the one we are left with. Nathaniel and Crystal are dead.”
Weaver closed the meeting. “Cape Elizabeth has had a tragic history” with its youth and substance abuse. “Many people have learned to expect a tragedy like this every couple of years.”
A number of students have told Tammaro the program made them think about the consequences of their actions, not just for themselves, but for others.
The assembly hit home. “The place was dead silent the whole time (McConnell) was talking,” Weaver said.
Coalition organizer Bob Flynn said parents have told him they have been talking about the issues with their kids, and some are getting more involved with the Cape Coalition as well.
“We’d much rather it be something like this than have it be an actual tragedy,” Weaver said.