PEMBROKE — A fatal car accident near Purnell Sweet High School on Thursday brought out paramedics, police, sheriff’s deputies, highway patrolmen and a helicopter from New Hanover Regional Medical Center.
But it was all an act — designed to raise students’ awareness about the dangers of drunk driving on the day before senior prom.
“It’s so real. Watching all these young adults participate, you think about if it was your daughter or your son and your heart just kind of stops,” said Elizabeth Wright, of the Substance Abuse Coalition, which puts together the Keys to Life program in Robeson County. “It’s very emotional, It’s very emotional for these kids.”
According to Wright, no teenager have been killed in drunk driving accidents on prom night since the Keys to Life program began in Robeson County three years ago. In the past, the simulation has been done just at Lumberton Senior High School. Wright hopes to expand to all the high schools next year.
Hundreds of seniors watched as ambulances and police cars barreled through the parking lot and four of their classmates, smeared in fake blood, were dragged from the mangled cars. Emergency responders took an accident report and hoisted the teens onto stretchers. One was put into the New Hanover helicopter before being declared “dead.”
One of those fatalities was Tayley Strickland, who was bundled up in and rolled off in a stretcher.
“It was really cool but it was also kind of scary because it’s really close in and you’re like oh my God this could really happen. It’s a learning experience,” she said.
Tayley’s real-life father, school board member Gary Strickland, rushed over as his daughter was hoisted onto the stretcher, feigning anguish over the accident.
“When I heard him coming up I almost started tearing up myself …,” she said. “I got in a wreck two years ago and I was completely sober, so if I can get in a wreck sober, I can definitely get in wreck if I was drunk too.”
Some students donned white face paint, representing the one in 15 Americans that will be killed in an alcohol-related wreck in their lifetime. Others held posters with similar statistics, sitting solemnly behind a white coffin in a mock-funeral on the football field.
“It’s sort of rewarding to me because of the fact that the message we deliver to these kids could possibly save their lives. That’s why I enjoy participating in this program,” said the Highway Patrol 1st Sgt. Ardeen Hunt, a graduate of the high school who has joined Keys to Life for the past three years.
But Hunt and other emergency responders dread the reality behind the make-believe that played out at Purnell Swett.
“I’ve been in law enforcement for almost 26 years now and I’ve been in just about every situation imaginable as far as going to a parent or a loved one’s house and knocking on the door and delivering that message … that’s one of the worst parts of my job,” he said.
Before the wreck simulation, Megan Ward recalled for tearful students when she heard that devastating knock — at 8 a.m. on July 31, 2011, hours after her 19-year-old daughter, Keegan, was killed in a traffic accident involving alcohol.
Ward asked the seniors to have a plan for getting home before they get into a situation where alcohol may be involved.
“If you want to see the person to the left or right of you on Monday morning … you do not need to drink and drive,” she said.
Ward reminded students to consider their parents before drinking and getting behind the wheel.
“If out of this tragedy, we could save a life, maybe we can find a small bit of meaning,” she said.