It starts with a loud bang. But long before Northfield High School can put on its biennial “mock crash” to raise awareness on drunk driving and send the message of making good choices, it takes numerous agencies and individuals to plan and organize the event.
When Brian Edwards, the director of the Northfield Hospital Emergency Medical Services, is asked if he believes that holding the event makes a difference, he pauses and laughs slightly before answering honestly.
“We ask ourselves what kind impact this makes,” he said. “And we have to answer in such a way so that we stay motivated. We believe that it helps, but there’s no empirical evidence of that. If it’s made a difference once, then it is worth it.”
The first mock crash was organized in 1998 as a collaboration between public safety organizations in Northfield. Edwards recalled that everyone involved thought it would be a great thing to do — a good training exercise and a way to send a good message to the students.
“In public safety, we see the effects of what we call ‘bad decisions’ all the time,” he said. “That’s one of the messages we need to drive home. As a parent and an adult, it’s important we have those honest conversations with kids. We’re not telling (kids) to not do these things because we’ve never done them. As we get older and mature, we make better decisions.”
Northfield High School activities director Tom Graupmann said that holding the mock crash for upperclassman to watch is a way to be proactive.
“This is an educational piece,” he said. “If students engage in risky behavior, here are the consequences.”
Before staging the mock crash, Edwards, Graupmann and the students who participated in the event met to discuss the logistics of staging the production: identifying the student driver responsible for the crash and assigning other roles as far as who is being airlifted from the scene, who is being taken away in an ambulance and who is leaving in a hearse.
Additionally, preparation included filming a brief video “prequel” to the staged crash that showed the four students drinking before getting into the car, as well as the two faculty member chaperons who were also involved in the accident.
During the meeting, Edwards explained that there are microphones placed in each of the vehicles, so the audience is able to hear the exchange between emergency personnel and the students.
“Screaming, crying, we want that participation,” Edwards told the students. “Unless you are dead.”
He explained that the safety of the participants is the first priority during the production, adding that blankets are placed over the actors so that they are not covered in broken glass or debris while they are extricated from the vehicles used. There is also a safe word in place for anybody that may become overwhelmed by the experience.
“Emotionally this will take a toll,” Edwards told the students, explaining that it may be most difficult for parents to witness. “There have been some parents that choose not to come. I have seen some parents not be able to watch and turn away.”
Junior Kayla Huntington is one of the students involved and she said that in preparation to watch Monday’s program, her mother asked her where the waterproof mascara was.
Northfield firefighter Mark Etzell was one of the emergency workers participating in the mock crash. Adding to the gravity of the scene, his daughter, high school senior Meg Etzell, played the role of the intoxicated student driver responsible for the accident.
Etzell said that prior to the staging of the crash, she and her father hadn’t really talked about it much.
“He wanted it to be as real as possible,” she said.
On the immediate impact that the mock crash has, Meg Etzell said that the message of making good choices is one that parents are always reminding kids about.
“But it’s different when you see your friends and peers going through it,” she said.
Junior Cole Gilbertson said that he hopes it sends a strong message.
“We want it to stick in their brains,” he said. “It’s kind of traumatizing.”
“There’s always going to be that high-schooler ‘tough personality’ thing,” she said. “I remember two years ago seeing people coming back from watching it in tears and talking about it. I think it hits home, at least I hope so.”
The message about good choices was echoed throughout the program; first with an introduction and closing remarks made by Northfield Chief of Police Monte Nelson, a discussion on the legal consequences with Rice County Attorney John Fossum and brief statements by Rice County Sheriff Troy Dunn and the event’s final speaker, Roger Fette.
As the owner of Fette Electronics in Faribault, Fette is known to many of the Northfield High School students for his sound work during “Rock ‘N Roll Revival.” He also donates the sound equipment for the mock crash in memory of his brother Greg, who was killed by a drunk driver 30 years ago. Fette’s statements were emotionally charged. He conceded that many know him as the guy “behind the scenes” in so many things, and that he prefers it that way. But with an issue like drinking and driving, he needs to be the one up front talking about it.
Before the presentation begins, the scene is masked by a series of parked school buses. The actors are put in place — faculty members Katherine Norrie and Shari Karlsrud; senior class members Meg Etzell and Billy Roecklein; and juniors Kayla Huntington and Cole Gilbertson. The sound effect of screeching tires plays over the public address system and a pyrotechnic is detonated, startling the audience as the buses pull away quickly, revealing the scene.
Panicked 911 calls regarding the accident played through the speakers as the actors began and the scene itself descended into chaos and noise − the screams and cries of the actors; emergency vehicle sirens blaring; the pneumatic tools used by the firefighters; then later, the helicopter landing nearby to airlift one of the students away.
Between the speakers and the staged crash itself, the whole presentation lasted about an hour. Students were sent back to their seventh hour class. Representatives from the Mayor’s Youth Task Force on Alcohol and Drug Use handed out bags with “sober” stickers in them.
On their way back into the school, some students were visibly shaken by what they witnessed — one girl said that it was terrifying; another was sobbing, clutching onto a friend for support.
“I saw more than one student crying,” Edwards said reflecting on the event after the crowd dispersed. “And it’s not those students we’re trying to reach with this. Because we know they’ll be the ones to go out there and say, ‘Hey, if you’ve been drinking and driving, I’m not going to ride with you.’”
“Here’s the litmus test. It’s typical that at the very beginning, when I’m introducing the event, that the students are still conversing with one another. We don’t have their undivided attention yet. Not until they hear the screeching tires and those buses pull away,” Graupmann said, adding that as the scenario unfolds, it becomes more real for the audience. “You could hear a pin drop. And we saw that on Monday. Those students watching were in a zone and that’s what it’s all about.
“For a terrible thing like this, everybody walks away from this one. I cannot imagine that this will not have an impact in a positive a way.”