By Celia Belmonte
RED BANK – It was with a dramatic simulated car crash and emergency response from Little Silver and Shrewsbury first aid, fire and police departments that Red Bank Regional High School kicked off its Project Prom program.
The program, which began May 15 in front of members of the senior class in the school’s parking lot, continues with lectures and group discussions through RBR’s prom on Friday, June 1 at Merri-Makers in the PNC Reception Center in Holmdel.
“We started the program because too many kids were lost during prom and graduation season,” said Little Silver police officer Pete Gibson, who is RBR’s resource officer and head of Project Prom. Emergency services in Shrewsbury, Little Silver and Red Bank assist in running the program, now in its eighth year at the high school.
“The Red Bank Police Department aids during the week,” said Marianne Kligman, the school’s community information officer. “They talk to the kids about what constitutes being drunk and the consequences.”
Students also engage in various activities to see what it is like to drink and drive. “The students wear vision impaired goggles and attempt to drive a golf cart around the field house,” Kligman said. During the simulated crash RBR seniors witnessed what it takes to rescue passengers from a three-car collision.
This was the first year RBR students participated in the mock crash with cars donated by Red Bank Recycling. Jake Cullinane played the role of drunk driver while Terrence Scanlon and Anthony Volvo and Volvo’s mother posed as victims in the mangled cars. Rescue workers treated the simulation like a real crash, using the Jaws of Life (a hydraulic tool used to free victims trapped in wrecked vehicles) to rip off car doors, snapping seatbelts with cutting equipment and smashing windows and removing car roofs. EMS volunteers then placed the injured in neck braces and strapped them to stretchers.
“It was kind of scary seeing the roof being taken off and my classmates in the car,” said senior Danna Bochicchio, 18, of Red Bank. A helicopter was scheduled to demonstrate the medical evacuation of a victim, but fog prohibited the aircraft from taking flight. Instead, the simulation culminated with a hearse from the John E. Day Funeral Home in Red Bank driving away with the victims inside.
Organizers hope the mock crash made an impression on students. “If I save one life, I saved a lot,” Gibson said. “I hope I hit home to every kid so they understand how serious this is.”
Gibson repeatedly underscored the importance of decision-making. “We are realistic,” Gibson said. “We know what goes on but I want to educate these students so they make the right choices in their lives.”
Shrewsbury Police Sgt. Dan Lloyd, who is the father of two RBR students, agreed. “We aren’t around when they make all of their decisions,” Lloyd said. “I’ve been doing this for 21 years. When you see the accidents I have seen, it’s horrific. It’s so much different from just reading about it in the paper. You don’t get the whole effect. We want the students to see it and get that chill in them.”
Ken Duffy of the John E. Day Funeral Home drove the hearse through the parking lot. “I’ve been a funeral director for 36 years,” Duffy said. “I’ve had 34 or more families in front of me, parents broken down over crashes like this – and we are just one funeral home.”
During the past five years, however, Duffy has seen a decline in the number of teenagers who die in accidents where drunken driving is a factor. “I really do think it is because of programs like these,” Duffy said.
RBR’s administration is proud of their program. “Our kids have been safe since starting the program,” Superintendent Jim Stefankiewicz said. “I know it impacts them now but I really hope it impresses them for a long time.”
Following the simulation, Project Prom moved inside where three guest speakers shared their stories of horror, loss and tragedy involving drunk driving. Joy Jones of Mothers Against Drunken Driving lost her son, Steve, in a drunk driving accident two weeks shy of his 20th birthday. His best friend was intoxicated behind the wheel. Although Steve’s death was 23 years ago, Jones reflected on the permanence of a night of bad decisions. “My sons Don and Mark both grew up to be good men with wives, kids and careers,” Jones said. “But Steve doesn’t have a wife, kids, a home, a career. He doesn’t have anything. I now have grandkids that are older than Steve was.”
Jones urged the students to make the right choice and never drink and drive. “It was the worst thing that ever happened to us,” Jones said. “Don’t let your parents be the ones here next year talking about you.”
Defense Attorney Mitch Ansell spoke next, explaining New Jersey’s strict possession of alcohol, driving while intoxicated and underage drinking laws. “If you have any alcohol in your system, even if you are sober, and you are under 21, that is an underage DUI,” Ansell said. The criminal charge results in a mandatory three-month license suspension.
Ansell then introduced his client, Eric Pereira. Pereira, 21, of Jackson, was convicted of second-degree vehicular homicide after driving drunk on the Garden State Parkway and sparking a crash that killed Middletown resident Kevin Donnelly, 43, last year. Donnelly was a father of five. Pereira warned the students about making the wrong decisions. On the night of the accident Pereira’s blood-alcohol level was .123 percent, more than 1.5 times the legal limit. He will begin serving his seven-year jail sentence in the next few weeks.
“All my friends are moving on, getting apartments, going out, having fun,” Pereira said. “And I’m going to be in jail.”