DUBLIN — On Friday afternoon, first-responders descended on the track around West Bladen High’s football field, not for an emergency, but in the hopes of preventing one.
The Bladen County Sheriff’s Office; Sheriff’s Air Mobile Unit; Elizabethtown, White Lake and Bladenboro police departments; North Carolina State Highway Patrol; Bladen Emergency Management; Bladen County Hospital; Ace Wrecker; Bladen EMS; Bladen Gaskins Funeral Home; Dennis Troy; Corey Hester; and several other volunteers presented a program to juniors and seniors at West Bladen called “Bladen Operation Safe Summer,” an effort to get a message to students about the dangers of texting and driving, driving while impaired, and driving without seat belts.
Students who had returned permission slips gathered in the gymnasium Friday at noon for a video. In it, five high school students, played by actual students at West Bladen, skip school and spend the morning consuming alcohol and then decide to get in a car.
After the video, students went to the football field, heard over the loudspeaker a dispatcher reporting the crash of five West Bladen students, and saw a mangled car with the students strewn around outside, inside, and on top of the car.
The live scene picked up with two of the students horrified at their three unresponsive friends, whose real names were being used, and with the arrival of emergency responders. Dozens of first responders administered first aid, loaded kids in ambulances on gurneys, draped the “dead” student, administered sobriety tests, handcuffed and loaded the two inebriated survivors into the police car, and used the jaws of life to extract one student. All the while, a grim reaper, sickle in hand, paced around the scene, and sirens and flashing lights filled the air.
Students then returned to the gymnasium, where the video picked up with an injured student arriving at Bladen County Hospital, where he was declared dead by medical staff. The body was followed to the county morgue. Meanwhile, the inebriated driver was taken to the police station, administered a breathalyzer test, fingerprinted, and taken to the magistrate’s office, where a court date was set while the stunned student appeared numb.
The video showed law enforcement breaking the news of the boy’s death to his mother and the court appearance and sentence read to the guilty student.
When the video ended, a casket draped with a jersey was wheeled into the gym, and mournful music played while the Rev. Dennis Troy conducted a staged funeral. Afterward, and not as part of the presentation, Troy prayed earnestly and on his knees for the students at West Bladen.
The video featured students playing themselves and featured actual people like a magistrate, a judge, and medical personnel, and all with good reason.
“We want them to see the athlete, the cheerleader, people they know, so that they understand that it can happen to them,” stated Cpl. Bull Shaw with the Sheriff’s Office. “We want them to see, from beginning to end, from the time they make a bad decision until they’re sent to prison, what actually takes place, and the real places that it happens, so they understand the results of their decisions. We wanted it to be real for them.”
The event continued as John and Tina Rossi shared their experience of losing their son, who got into a car with a drunk driver.
“Everything that you see today, although it’s a presentation, is reality. And once someone is gone, they’re gone forever. You can’t go back. You can’t fix that,” John Rossi said urgently.
“Death has no mercy, and it never will,” explained West Bladen Coach Tarius Baker, before repeatedly telling the students how much he loves them.
The effort made an impact on West Bladen’s students.
“It teaches me that you can go any time,” said Malique McDowell, “and it doesn’t even have to be a decision you make.”
“It was sad,” said Austin Dowless.
“It’s been an eye-opener,” said Dasia Young. “There was a wreck in Elizabethtown that just happened with a guy I know. The decisions we make affect the lives of other people.”
Such statements must be music to the organizers’ ears.
“That’s what we want them to know,” said Shaw, “that what they do today can have long-lasting effects.”
“It was a good day,” said Bladen County Sheriff Jim McVicker. “I think we got our point across.”
The Rev. DeWayne Lambeth, chaplain for the Sheriff’s Office, hopes so.
“I’ve been at these wrecks and heard mothers wailing over their children,” he said. “I hope the students were listening.”
The coordination of all of the agencies and personnel required to produce the video and the live action was nothing short of staggering.
“We just put this together in the last three weeks,” explained McVicker.
He was quick, however, to deflect praise, stating that officers came to him with the idea and that they and their wives took the reins and coordinated the effort.
“If it saves even one life, it’s worth it,” said Shaw of the monumental effort. “All of this,” he said, gesturing around the room, “was worth it to save just one.”
The same program was presented earlier in the day to students at East Bladen.
Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.