Monday, April 13, 2009

Mock wreck gets students to think

PAULLINA-It's parents' worst nightmare: Receiving a phone call that their child has been involved in a potentially fatal car accident. Emergency medical personnel aren't certain whether their child is alive or dead.

That appeared to be a reality that the parents of South O'Brien High School seniors Grant Hibbing, Derek Fredrichsen, Megan McCauley and Sara Burmakow had to face on Friday, April 3, in a mock accident.

In the scenario, a smashed car had come to rest on its wheels on the South O'Brien High School football field in Paullina. McCauley and Burmakow had been ejected from the car and were feared dead. Fredrichsen was trapped in the back seat. Hibbing was behind the wheel with a nearly empty bottle of Jose Cuervo in his hands.

Luckily, the prom weekend crash didn't really happen. Rather, it was a demonstration to show South O'Brien students in grades 7-12 the devastating effects of drinking and driving.

"We did a mock accident seven years ago, and our goal is to do one for each student in grades 7-12," guidance counselor Connie Flynn said. "So we plan to do another in six years."

Discussions for the mock accident began in August, and meetings with area medical personnel began in September.

Seve Loshman, a volunteer member of Calumet Emergency Medical Services, gave the South O'Brien students a report of the accident as they sat in the bleachers overlooking the football field, captivated by the events unfolding.

His wife, Gina, a secretary at South O'Brien High School, served as the first witness to the scene and the person who called 911. Iowa State Patrol and O'Brien County Sheriff's Department officers responded. Paullina's fire department, emergency medical services, rescue unit and ambulance squad and the Sutherland and Primghar ambulance teams also responded to the scene.

As flashing blue and red lights and piercing sirens filled the eerily silent football stadium, Hibbing emerged from the car, bringing with him a nearly empty bottle of alcohol. Not phased at all, the teenager took another swig from his tequila bottle while Burmakow laid motionless directly to his left.

Once the emergency personnel arrived on the mock scene, they assessed the situation, realizing almost immediately that McCauley had been killed. They covered her with a blanket before inserting her into a black body bag and transporting her to Baum-Harmon Mercy Hospital in Primghar, where they pronounced her dead.

Burmakow was put on a board and in a neck brace by the Sutherland emergency workers, who took her to the Primghar hospital.

Firefighters also eliminated the risk of the vehicle bursting into flames and used the Jaws of Life to remove Fredrichsen, who was trapped in the back seat. While the roof of the car was being removed to extract Fredrichsen, Hibbing was given a field sobriety test. He then was handcuffed and put in the back seat of the sheriff's department car. The Mercy Air Care helicopter soon arrived to take Fredrichsen to Mercy Mecial Center in Sioux City.

After the helicopter took off, Steve instructed the students to file into the gymnasium. While their attitudes were aloof before arriving on the accident scene, it appeared that the event had an impact on most, as they morosely walked back to the high school.

Inside the darkened gym, five vignettes were featured, which were set up to depict the events happening after the tragedy.

"The following scenes will make some of you sad, sick to your stomachs or ache for loved ones you may have lost," Steve Loshman informed the somber audience. "We've done this for a reason, and through this, we hope to maybe save some of you."

The first scene depicted the emergency room at Baum-Harmon where Burmakow was taken. As doctors were trying to revive the 18-year-old, the body bag containing McCauley's body was wheeled in. Sobs escaped from students watching the scene, and not long after, Burmakow also was pronounced dead.

In the second scene, Hibbing was given a test to evaluate his blood-alcohol level. O'Brien County deputy Devin Van Meeteren informed him that he registered at .12, which is above the legal limit of .08 in Iowa.

"It doesn't take a 24-pack to get drunk and kill someone," Van Meeteren said.

Hibbing was charged on two felony counts of vehicular homicide and a felony count of attempted vehicular homicide. He also was slapped with a drunken driving charge.

In the next scene, Hibbing, donning a black-and-white striped inmate uniform, was arraigned, pled guilty and was sentenced to 25 years in prison for one of the vehicular homicides.

The fourth scene involved a variety of the emergency medical personnel undergoing a grief training session. The responders, doctors and nurses talked about arriving on the scene and what was going through their minds.

The final scene was the memorial service for McCauley and Burmakow. Posters with photographs of both students were featured beside two urns containing their ashes.

Following the presentation, the students were instructed to go to their homerooms where they could talk about their feelings. Additional grief counseling also was available.

For the students involved, the situation was all too real.

"The worst part was hearing your parents yelling and seeing them at your own funeral," McCauley said.

"It was so difficult," Burmakow said.

For Hibbing, he couldn't have felt worse knowing he was the cause of the mock accident.

"Seeing my parents and talking to them after I was sentenced and realizing that I wouldn't be seeing them for years at a time was really difficult," he said.

South O'Brien administrators think the event was successful.

"If we saved even one life, it's worth it," Flynn said.
This article appeared in the April 11, 2009 edition of The N'West Iowa REVIEW.

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