ROSE HILL — While traveling at 55 mph, an unbuckled 17-year-old driver slams into a light pole. When the car hits the wood, he braces for the quick second impact.
Steel from the mangled car punctures his lung and tears the arteries as his head makes impact with the windshield. Blood drips on the car door. A jogger sees the wreck and tries to open the door. She frantically calls 911. Firefighters arrive on the scene and use the Jaws of Life to pry apart the doors and rip the roof off. Beer cans and bottles of alcohol are removed from the vehicle by officers.
He’s placed on a stretcher and paramedics shock his chest with a defibrillator. The youngster’s mom and dad arrive on the scene and watch as they can’t do anything to save his life. His heart stopped awhile ago. After hearing the zip of her son’s body bag, her cries and pleads to God become louder as she follows the paramedics taking the body away.
“Please God, I’m only 17,” the deceased driver says to himself.
Hundreds of students at Union High School watch, with a few sniffles breaking the quietness. Although the scene was an re-enactment of a crash scenario at Union High School, it’s a common sight for emergency personnel throughout Sampson County. With prom and graduation approaching, many students are ready to have fun with their dates and friends or celebrate that big milestone of finishing high school. The Vehicle Injury Prevention for a Very Important Person (VIP for a VIP) program wants to make sure youths enjoy those moments in a safe way.
“We are trying to prevent this from happening,” said Daryl Cash of VIP for a VIP while standing next to a memorial cross. “I hope none of you have your name on one of these road sign memorials.”
The purpose of VIP for a VIP is to bring the sight, sounds and smell of a fatal vehicle accident to high schools. Organizers hope the dramatic scene will make students think about the consequences and make better decisions. It began in 1998 when two off-duty firefighters decided to take action after seeing a fatality involving a teenager. Since that time VIP for a VIP has reached more than 155,000 teenagers.
“North Carolina is the leading state of teen fatalities,” Cash said. “The only reason we’re out here is because we love you and we care about you. You don’t know me but these emergency personnel that you see standing around you …when you make the wrong choice, they’re going to be here to pick you up.”
Brady Roberts, a Union High senior and member of Harrells Fire Department, was one of many personnel involved in the outside presentation.
“It’s pretty intense,” Roberts said. “It opens your eyes that it could be anybody. Don’t say that it can’t be you because it can be.”
James Jones II, a school resource officer, learned about the program during the conference a few years ago and signed up to bring the program to Sampson County. Along with Sgt. Scott Hodges, school resource supervisor, he believes it was very well received.
“I don’t believe we’ve had a prom, drunk driving program that had this kind of impact,” said Jones, a deputy with the Sampson County Sheriff’s Department.
Teresa Madden, the VIP for a VIP Eastern Team Representative, recalled times when her son and husband participated as the accident victim and father. It’s something she believes every student should see.
“They see a dose of reality,” Madden said. “If we effected one child, then we did our job.”
Students Skye Page and Jawawn Newkirk believes the message resonated with a lot of students. During the scene, the two students placed the cross and a red rose in front of the crushed car.
“I heard some of my friends talking about it and it had them thinking,” Newkirk said about the re-enactment’s positive impact. “I know it did.”
“Especially when the mom came out,” Page added about the parents who arrived on the scene.”That made it more real.”
Before the afternoon re-enactment, the program featured a morning session in the auditorium where mother Kay Thomas of Charlotte shared her story about losing her son, Elliot, in 2004 when the 17-year-old crashed into a tree while traveling on a rural road with black ice.
“It’s a life-shattering event for a family to lose a child and the trauma of a sudden death is also something to deal with,” Thomas said. “Elliot was an athlete, he was a good student. This happens to everybody. It just doesn’t happen to bad kids, it happens to everybody.”
Thomas said the presentation was a way to use his life to make an impact on another student’s so they can think about the consequences of texting, not wearing a seat belt and drinking.
“A vehicle is like a bomb,” Thomas said about the impact of crashes. “When it hits another object, it explodes with you inside of it. Most of our kids don’t think of it that way.”
Some of the emergency personnel speakers included included Erick Herring of Sampson County EMS, Sampson County Sheriff Jimmy Thornton and Kevin Pearson, a master trooper with the North Carolina Highway Patrol. With hat in hand, Pearson said he had to knock on front doors and tell parents their children have been killed in a wreck.
“I’ve done that several times and unfortunately, I’m going to continue to do that,” Pearson said told the students. “Make sure you make the right choices so I don’t have to do that.”
Following the presentation, he expressed how it’s an uneasy thing to do.
“I’ve been assaulted, I had parents cry uncontrollably and some people even laughed because they’re in shock,” Pearson said. “There’s no way you can predict that.”
Deanna Earle, science teacher, portrayed the jogger who was the first to see the accident. She noted that some students are unaware of the consequences of just being “a little tipsy.”
“It’s not often that they’re drinking physically while driving, but they have been impaired (before driving),” Earle said about instances such as consuming three beers before getting behind the wheel.
Like other emergency personnel and school officials, she hoped the students learned about the dangers of being intoxicated, texting or using other types of social media while driving. Principal Julie Hunter said Union High School was fortunate to have program officials visit.
“It’s a program that’s powerful and touching to our students,” Hunter said. “I really appreciate what they brought to our kids today and our adults. We’re very fortunate that we were able to have it here.”
Reach Chase Jordan at 910-249-4617. Follow us on Twitter at @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.