Sirens and the sounds of heart wrenching cries could be heard echoing down Ramsdell Avenue in front of Crescenta Valley High School’s gym early Tuesday morning.
“Somebody do something,” said Ariga Aghagi.
“Where are the cops!” cried Callie Perry.
The scene of a tragic car crash lay before the high school’s junior and senior classes as they stood and watched their classmates reenact what could happen when someone drinks alcohol and gets behind the wheel of a car.
For two days, Crescenta Valley High School juniors and seniors were part of the Every 15 Minutes program. With its origins in Canada, the program has spread from high school to high school throughout the United States since 1995. The purpose is to emphasize that drinking and driving can have tragic consequences not only in the deaths and injuries of the victims but in the wasted life of the drunk driver.
“There is a lot of logistics to deal with,” Glendale police Officer Bill Torley said.
This is the ninth time Torley has organized an Every 15 Minutes Program in the area. “I do it because I believe in it.”
Principal Linda Evans said that Torley approached her at a school football game about conducting the program at Crescenta Valley. The district, Glendale police, Crescenta Valley Sheriff’s Station, Los Angeles County fire and California Highway Patrol along with local businesses and community members brought realism to the mock accident.
Thirty high school students were chosen to play the “living dead” and the accident victims. The “living dead” were pulled out of the classroom, one every 15 minutes.
“When a student in second period ‘died’ he was pulled from the classroom and his obituary was read to the class,” said teacher Jim Smiley. “The mood became somber. The classroom went silent. After they announced he was dead, a number of students bowed their heads.”
The “living dead” students were taken to a room. Their faces were painted white, they were dressed in black and handed a red rose. During the mock accident, those students stood in silence on the sidewalk opposite of the student audience.
Everything that would happen in a real crash was re-enacted by law enforcement and rescue officials.
The first on scene was CHP Officer Todd Workman, who ran to the vehicles and told the victims not to move. Then sheriff deputies responded and fire and rescue came on the scene. Schaeffer Ambulance rolled up and took out stretchers and firefighters used the jaws-of-life to cut the victims out of the vehicles. Finally, the Los Angeles County Coroner vehicle arrived.
There were many fatalities. The realism of the tragic scene was maintained throughout the ordeal. Witnesses cried, victims had gashes across their bodies and the “dead” were covered with cloth.
Then, just like in a real-life situation, Officer Workman took the drunk driver, who only had a small cut on his face, out of the vehicle. Senior Alan Pagatourian played the role of the drunk driver. Workman conducted a series of tests, including having Pagatourian touch his nose, walk a straight line and take a breathalyzer test. At this point, Workman announced that his blood-alcohol was above the legal limit and took him into custody.
Pagatourian was handcuffed and led to a waiting patrol vehicle.
As the scene played out, some students laughed, others were silent.
“I think this had a huge affect,” said senior Mackinsey Wooley. “How do you live with what happened?”
“I was surprised how long it took to take off the [car] door,” said senior Danielle Cichon. “I didn’t think it would take that long.”
“I was shocked how people were thrown out of the car,” said junior Greg Mouw. “Some kids didn’t take this seriously, but this could happen to you.”
Pagatourian was taken down to the Glendale Police station and booked. Workman processed him as if he were really under arrest for driving under the influence.
He was turned over to a Glendale officer who continued to process him as the “living dead” students toured the jail facility.
“All cells are video- and audio-taped. You have no privacy,” Juan Lopez, jail administrator said.
The next stop for the students was the court house. Pagatourian, dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit, was handcuffed and shackled as he shuffled into the courtroom. There his sentenced was pronounced by Judge Stephen Lubell: 17 years, eight months in state prison.
“Mr. Pagatourian, you are 19 years old. With the sentence just imposed on you, you will be spending almost as much time in prison as you have been alive,” said Lubell. “Last year in the state of California, 17,000 people died in alcohol-related crashes at a cost to society of $50 billion.”
The 30 students and Pagatourian were then taken to Forest Lawn to see the final outcome of the tragedy. They then spent the night at Burbank Holiday Inn where they discussed the emotional day and wrote letters to their parents.
During an assembly on Wednesday, the students then read their letters to their parents, who were in the audience, and to their fellow classmates. Each letter began, “Dear Mom and Dad, every 15-minutes someone in the United States dies from an alcohol-related traffic collision, and today I died. I never had the chance to tell you ”
Voices cracked and tears filled their eyes as the students said goodbye to their parents. Most apologized for getting into the car with a drunk driver or going to “that party.”
“I died without a sound,” said one student.
“If I could, I would replace my life with those that died,” the “guilty driver” Pagatourian read.
The student body, who at times had laughed and joked around, were silent during the reading of the letters. Emotion was high as those that read broke down in tears. Many in the audience, both boys and girls, wiped their eyes.
When asked about the experience, Pagatourian said the “scary” part was being in the orange jump suit, waiting for sentencing. When asked if he would ever drive drunk, he said, “No way. I would never put my mom through this.”