The message law enforcement, first responders and others had for students at the Upsala High School, April 29, was simple — it is not worth it.
One text, one beer or the one time a seat belt is left unbuckled.
“We are not promised tomorrow,” said Morrison County Sheriff Shawn Larsen.
The message was delivered at the mock crash that was held at the school. It not only gave students a chance to get a glimpse into all that goes on once a 911 call is received and emergency personnel is dispatched to a car crash, but also statistics and personal stories.
The purpose of the mock crash was to educate the students about all that goes on when emergency personnel responds to a car crash and also to encourage them to make positive decisions when they get behind the wheel.
First, the students met in the auditorium and watched a video that was presented by the Minnesota State Patrol. Several people shared their personal stories in the video and how a loved one’s poor decision had affected their entire family.
On the video, State Trooper Kristen Breyer said, “These tragic stories and graphic images are difficult to watch. They hit hard and they hit close to home. The victims are your friends, your neighbors and your family. These are not accidents. They are crashes, are violent and can be prevented.”
Students were told by the video that crashes can be prevented by following four simple rules.
The first was to pay attention as distractions are the number one cause of crashes on Minnesota roads.
The second is to drive the speed limit. After all, the faster a person drives, the less time he or she has to react and is more likely to be involved in a crash.
The third is to never drink and drive. According to the Minnesota State Patrol, “Alcohol is a factor and accounts for more than 30 percent of traffic fatalities.”
The final step drivers and passengers can take that easily determines the outcome is to always wear a seat belt. “Buckling up is the easiest thing you can do to avoid being injured or killed in a crash,” the video said.
In Monday’s mock crash, the students observed the aftermath of a crash. Four of their fellow high school students acted in various roles.
Driver Collin Prom was seen getting out of the vehicle while still holding his cellphone in one hand and looking down at it. Cheryl Zimmerman was trapped inside the car and was heard screaming for help to get out.
As passenger Audrey Thomas made her way around the car, she discovered the body of Alex Roerick laying lifeless on the ground. Not wearing his seat belt, he was ejected from the vehicle.
Thomas made an actual call to 911 and the students heard over radios that were placed on the bleachers what happens once a call is received.
Sgt. Joel Gross with the Morrison County Sheriffs Office responded to the call and was the first at the scene. Other law enforcement officers, firefighters with the Upsala Fire Department and members of the Upsala First Response Team came shortly after.
One of the things the students commented on later was that everything seemed to move so slow at the scene. They were surprised to learn that in reality it can take emergency personnel about 15 minutes to get to a scene. It all depends on how close a unit is to the location.
“It was just shocking. I didn’t realize how slow everything was and being in that situation, I am sure it would have seemed slower,” said Ali Harren, an 11th grade student.
It also took a while for the firefighters to extricate Zimmerman from the wreck using the Jaws of Life. In reality, they moved as fast they could and as fast as the extrication tool would allow them. Fire Chief Jay Baggenstoss said the tool is set up to move slower for the safety of the victims and the workers.
As television shows often portray rescue efforts as intense and emergency personnel arriving nearly instantly to the site, Harren said she believes it skews people’s perception on the timeline in reality versus fiction.
Once Zimmerman was extricated, she was airlifted by a helicopter from North Memorial Health Air Care that had landed on the football field nearby.
While Sgt. Gross administered a field sobriety test to Prom, the hearse from Miller-Carlin Funeral Home arrived to remove the body.
“There were so much going on and I didn’t realize that the funeral home actually came out and got the body,” said 11th grade student Amber Biniek.
An empty 12-pack of beer and several empty cans were found scattered around the car. After failing the field sobriety test, Prom was arrested by Sgt. Gross for driving drunk.
“He will be brought to jail, charged with criminal homicide and is probably looking at a sentence of about four years and it will stay on his record for life. It has some serious consequences,” Larsen said.
After the mock crash, the students gathered in the auditorium for any questions they may have had for law enforcement, the fire department or first responders. Several of the emergency responders shared their personal experience with responding to car crashes and other ways they had been impacted.
Sgt. Gross spoke about the awful feeling of having to deliver the worst news they can to a parent — death notifications.
“We all have done way too many of them. It is the worst God awful feeling standing outside the door, pulling into the yard and having that knowledge that you have to give that news to the family and they don’t know that yet,” he said.
Gross knows what it feels like losing friends as a result of car crashes. In high school, he lost four people — two for drinking and driving and the other two for other things, he said.
“I played first base. Kevin played second base. That was in the middle of the season so for the next four or five games and playoffs, Kevin wasn’t there and that was from drinking and driving,” he said.
State Trooper Karla Bearce said she knows what it’s like waiting in an emergency room for news about a loved one. Her sister was once involved in a crash in which she wasn’t wearing her seat belt and was ejected. Fortunately, she survived, but not without a price to pay.
“She had a number of broken bones and had to go through hundreds of surgeries to repair her face and her mouth, but she is alive,” she said.
Bearce said her sister had been on her way to a graduation party about a week after she graduated high school when she was hit by another student in her class who failed to yield.
Like Gross, giving death notifications is hard on Bearce. As a mother, she knows the strong connection parents have with their children and how devastating it would be to lose a child. Death notifications are also always given in person as there is a certain dignity that goes with it, she said.
“That is the hardest thing we have to do. I am the one who have to tell your father or your mother that you won’t be coming home. Think of your parents and what it would do to them if you didn’t wear your seat belt, if it was the one time you decided to have a couple of beers and it impaired your judgment,” she said. “That split second decision can affect your whole life. Everybody around you, like ripples on a pond, is affected. If you are not going to wear your seat belt, do it for your mom, do it for your dad, do it for your sister and for your friend who is going to have to live without you.”
Larsen said about 30 teenagers die each year in Minnesota as a result of crashes. The reasons for many of the crashes are inexperienced drivers, risktaking, speed, distracted driving, no seat belt use and alcohol.
“If you look down on your phone or take your eyes off the road for five seconds, you travel the length of a football field. Think of all the pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists. If we think we are invincible, we are not because these things happen,” he said.
Erica Hollermann, a 12th grade student, said she was surprised by how realistic the mock crash was. Seeing it also reminded her of watching her sister grieve when one of her best friends was killed in a car crash.
“Even though I wasn’t close to her friend, it hit close to home, from seeing her hang out with my sister at home to my sister crying because she was gone,” she said.
Eleventh grade student Laura Lange said she found the mock crash interesting.
“I am just glad that I was able to see how it would actually be if it was me, how my small decisions can make an impact on everyone around me,” she said.