Weinzheimer, a senior at Patterson High School, participated this week in Patterson High School’s Every 15 Minutes program, which since 2002 has aimed to educate junior and senior high school students about the dangers of driving while intoxicated.
The mantra: “Every 15 minutes, someone dies of an alcohol-related collision.”
Weinzheimer said she was 11 years old and staying with her grandparents when the phone rang. A drunken driver had hit her mother at noon as she drove back to Patterson from a class in Modesto. Her car flipped a dozen times and landed in a water-filled ditch, and she was in the hospital.
Weinzheimer’s grandmother took the call, but she waited until later that evening to tell anyone what had happened. In the meantime, Weinzheimer imagined the worst scenario possible.
“You know a bad phone call when you hear it,” she said. “I had gone the whole day thinking my mother had passed away.”
After a few weeks in the hospital, her mother was able to return to a normal life. The drunken driver was caught and arrested. And on Tuesday, Weinzheimer portrayed a victim of drunken driving who died almost immediately after being ejected through the windshield of the drunken-driver’s car.
For about an hour, in front of her junior and senior peers, she remained deathly still as the scene unfolded around her.
Every two years, Eddie Thompson, a Patterson volunteer fire captain and high school campus supervisor, joins with others to prepare a two-day shock-fest aimed at giving students a taste of the realities associated with drunken driving.
Day one begins with a crash scene, played out — this year on Ninth Street — in front of a student audience. It uses real fire trucks, an ambulance, highway patrol officers, emergency medical technicians and firefighters.
The scene of the crash, hidden at first from the audience by a big tarp, is uncovered to reveal a gruesome situation: Two cars have crashed, and a girl (Weinzheimer) has been thrown onto the roof of another car and is now unconscious. Two other girls — played by seniors Stephanie Barraza and Desiree Esparza — are trapped in their car, bloodied and screaming. All three end up dying. The cause of the crash is a drunken driver, who steps from his vehicle shocked and unscathed. He’s one of the most popular guys in school: Jacob Priester, a senior.
It’s a formula that has been followed at high schools across the country since 1995. In addition to the crash scene, one student is taken silently from his or her classroom every 15 minutes throughout the school day by someone dressed as the grim reaper (this year, it was Daniel Saldivar). A California Highway Patrol officer announces that a drunken driver has hit and killed the student, something that happens to someone in the U.S. an average of four times per hour.
The students, who Thompson says are chosen because they represent different social cliques, then disappear for the rest of the day and night — they attend an all-night retreat at the Westley Fire Station, and their parents are encouraged to attend a parents retreat in the evening to discuss what happened.
The next day, the clan of “living dead,” which includes the three crash victims, re-appears at an assembly that caps the two-day event. Speakers, apologies, warnings and revelations drive home the main message: Don’t drive drunk and don’t be reckless with life, because drunken driving deaths — and the long-lasting pain that accompanies them — happen to young people far too often.