Drunk driving program Every 15 Minutes is only make believe, but the tears are always real

By Ed Martin, Editor
The Grim Reaper assists Lemoore Firefighters as they deliver an injured Mia Raber to a waiting helicopter that will deliver her to Adventist Hospital. It was part of a program entitled "Every 15 Minutes" that played to LHS students Thursday afternoon.
The Grim Reaper assists Lemoore Firefighters as they deliver an injured Mia Raber to a waiting helicopter that will deliver her to Adventist Hospital. It was part of a program entitled "Every 15 Minutes" that played to LHS students Thursday afternoon.
Gary Feinstein/Feinsteinfotos

It was a good day to teach. On a Thursday afternoon, beneath overcast skies, Lemoore High School students filed into the bleachers in Tiger Stadium. They were sent there to gain an essential lesson in life, one that each of them no doubt would remember for the rest of his or her life.

This lesson came courtesy of a California Highway Patrol program called “Every 15 Minutes,” a unique curriculum that graphically teaches teenagers about the dangers of drinking alcohol and driving – and its consequences. 

As several hundred Lemoore High School students gathered in the north bleachers of Tiger Stadium, menacing clouds  – enhanced by unusual spring winds – loomed in the skies above Lemoore, lending a sense of foreboding to the occasion.

In some strange way the mood seemed appropriate for tragedy – even if this Shakespearean show was mostly a make-believe drama, an outdoor one-act play known as “Every 15 Minutes” where students, in this case, over 20 LHS teenagers, deliver to their fellow students, a significant lesson about the dangers of combining alcohol with driving.

See Remscape's Every 15 Minutes video 

Drinking and driving remain a problem in America. According to a plethora of national statistics, including the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), every day nearly 30 persons die in drunk driving crashes. That’s one person every 48 minutes in 2017. While drunk-driving deaths fell by a third in the last three decades, alcohol-related crashes still claim more than 10,000 lives per year. In 2017 there were 10,874 deaths from drunk-driving accidents.

A Lemoore police officer handcuffs suspect Anthony Jones, an important part of Every 15 Minutes. He is taken to the Kings County Jail before returning to the school.
A Lemoore police officer handcuffs suspect Anthony Jones, an important part of Every 15 Minutes. He is taken to the Kings County Jail before returning to the school.
Gary Feinstein/Feinsteinfotos

Programs like “Every 15 Minutes,” sponsored by the California Highway Patrol, are helping to make young people more attuned to the problem of alcohol, teens, and cars.

In the end, these innocent teens are likely to learn valuable lessons about life – and how quickly it can vanish. And, of course, they will always remember this day. These memories will remain locked in their collective minds whenever they settle behind the wheel of a car.

These lessons have been routinely taught to local high school students every other year for the past 20 years or so, and hundreds, if not thousands of the school’s graduates, retained those searing images of those two days in April when they learned about the dangers of drinking and driving.

But unlike in the real world where men, women, and teenagers strap themselves into automobiles while under the influence of alcohol, these Lemoore High School teens, who played their roles well, got to wash the makeup from their faces when it was all over. After they gathered for an educational retreat and concluded the program on Friday, they happily returned to their families and friends, more attuned to the dangers of mixing alcohol with cars.

But the hundreds of students who watched this two-day dramatic lesson, and the 23 or so students who played critical roles in Thursday and Friday’s performances, will probably never forget the experience and maybe, just maybe, think twice before mixing alcohol with driving.

Organizing this year’s event was leadership teacher, Anne Strong, who in a previous rendition of “Every 15 Minutes,” was once the victim, a beloved teacher who died at the hands of a drunk driver while returning students from a school event.

“It's always so amazing to see the community come together to put on this event,” said Lemoore High School’s Strong. “So many public and private entities are involved with their time, donations, and resources. To see the impact it has on the students that are directly involved, as well as their families and peers, makes it so worthwhile.”

Seventeen-year-old Mercedes Rivera played a crucial role in Thursday’s program, but she didn’t have a speaking role. She was the drama’s first victim, thrown from the car after it collided with another vehicle, driven by another teenager – portrayed by Anthony Jones – under the influence of alcohol. Another would die at the hospital, flown there by a California Highway Patrol helicopter. One more student would end up paralyzed.

Lemoore's firemen, using the Jaws of Life, remove a victim from a vehicle.
Lemoore's firemen, using the Jaws of Life, remove a victim from a vehicle.
Gary Feinstein/Feinsteinfotos

According to this annual melodrama, the drunk driver survives to face justice in a court of law.

Rivera, an LHS senior, played her role well. Her lifeless figure, lying stretched out on the same grass where – during most seasons – Tigers score touchdowns, was perhaps the first thing the several hundred juniors and seniors saw when entering the bleachers at Tiger Stadium.

Soon, the familiar sounds of sirens sounded in the distance, and within minutes a caravan of law enforcement and public safety vehicles including the CHP and Lemoore Police Department arrived on the tragic scene. Paramedics and Lemoore volunteer firefighters arrived and quickly covered Rivera’s lifeless body. She was left alone, unmoving, silently on the open field until the end when she was picked up, placed in a coroner’s van and driven away as the school’s student body sat silently in the bleachers.

Then the firemen began their work, just as they do every day of the year. They brought out the Jaws of Life to save a passenger trapped in a vehicle.

“I volunteered because I felt that drinking and driving is a big thing, and the thing I know now is that a lot of people in Kings County get killed because of drunk driving. I wish that it was lower, but I want to have an impact on the community,” said Rivera who later that evening at a retreat in the Lemoore Veterans Hall shared her thoughts with fellow students.

The friendly Rivera, who sports a bright smile and an equally bright demeanor, hopes to attend college in Texas where she plans to study for a psychology degree. She said that the two-day exercise was a valuable teaching lesson about the dangers of mixing alcohol with driving. “Even though I was one of the crash scene members, when I heard my mom crying in the morgue, I was supposed to be dead. But I was trying so hard to hold back the tears because if that was someone else’s child, I can’t imagine how they might feel.”

A similar scene was played out at Adventist’s Hanford Medical Facility (a longtime partner in this emotional saga) where one of the victims, Mia Raber, delivered to doctors by a CHP helicopter, was pronounced dead upon her arrival. It’s always the same:  Students suffering and dying, parents crying, and it’s an all too familiar story, one shared by thousands of victims of wayward drunken drivers.

The good news? In the end, these parents got their children back. When the student audience returned to class, and when the cameras disappeared, and the police and fire vehicles had left the scene, the make-believe victims safely returned to their families. That’s not always the case in the real world.

Other victims, Anthony Zaragoza, and Hunter Cole arrived at Adventist by ambulance. Doctors informed Cole’s parents that his legs were paralyzed. Zaragoza was the lucky one. He only suffered from a broken arm. Doctors examined him and returned him to school with his parents. Zaragoza and Cole joined the rest of their “Every 15 Minutes” classmates for dinner, an educational retreat, and then bedtime courtesy of Lemoore’s Best Western Hotel.

Once the Tiger Stadium program concluded, the school’s principal, Rodney Brumit, read Rivera’s obituary to a stunned audience. He explained to the silent students that there are counseling services available, and then he solemnly advises the students to return to class.

Student Anthony Jones, the make-believe drunk driver, was read his rights and then handcuffed by a Lemoore police officer, beginning a journey that included a visit to the Kings County Jail and before being released to his parents. The suspect’s trip isn’t over. Jones would face a fictional trial the next day in the school’s Event Center. The prosecution was taped a week ago in a Kings County courtroom. 

And always, looming in the background are the living dead, nearly 20 students who earlier in the day were pulled from classrooms by the Grim Reapers, led by veterans Kings County Probation veterans Mike Heid and Lance Crewse. Both men enter classrooms, tap the victim and then lead him away, but not before a police officer reads the student’s obituary.

And finally, during Friday’s finale in the school’s event center, students will view a video of the previous day’s events, captured by Remscape photographer Josh Cordero. Students will also – for the first time – see the video of the drunk driver’s trial where Kings County District Attorney Keith Fagundes prosecutes the drunk driver and Superior Court Judge Burnes (both "Every 15 Minute" veterans) declares him guilty and sentences him to jail.

Thursday morning included funeral services for the victims while off stage the voices of the victims are heard reading poignant letters to their loved ones. Parents or loved ones read notes to their children. The moments are designed to draw tears, and sure enough, there are many moist eyes in the audience as the ceremony ends.

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