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A sobering event at WACS

Mock accident shows dangers of drunk driving

May 12, 2016
By David Prenatt ( , Westfield Republican

The strains of Sarah McLachlan's "In The Arms of An Angel" drifted on the cool breeze as Westfield Academy and Central School students watched the body of senior classmate, Ashley Burgess being wrapped in a body bag and loaded into a hearse.

Thankfully, Burgess was not really dead, but was playing a pivotal role in a mock demonstration of an alcohol-related car crash at the school on May 3. Still, the demonstration was as authentic as possible, involving Westfield emergency personnel and Chautauqua County police officials, as well as the county coroner, the funeral home, and a Starflight helicopter.

Of course, it was not an accident that it all took place less than one week before WACS prom night. "It's not going to get to every single one of them, but I know it gets a hold in their hearts when they see the body," said WACS English teacher Ashley Carlson, who helped organize the event. "If you make it as real as possible, it gets to them."

Article Photos

Photos by David Prenatt
Emergency personnel, along with the funeral director and coroner, take the “body” of WACS senior Ashley Burgess to a waiting hearse during a mock alcohol-related car crash at the school May 3.

The program was coordinated by the school in conjunction with ALSTAR EMS, a division of W.C.A. Services in Jamestown. Resources Manager Ron Hasson said the company has partnered with the Chautauqua County Sheriff's Department to stage presentations such as this for more than 20 years.

Chautauqua County Deputy Sheriff and Certified Drug Recognition Expert Nathan Baideme spoke to students about his work in the Stop DWI unit before and after the simulation . He assured the students that an actual DWI crash scene is "much more intense" than what they witnessed. "What I wish for you to take away from this is to make smart life choices," he said.

The presentation was intense enough. The students involved in the simulation first presented a skit about the activities of two groups of friends on prom night before the fatal accident. One group was drinking and playing "beer pong, while the other group had no alcohol, but was enjoying a campfire and discussing future plans.

The student body then proceeded to go outside behind the school, where two 'crashed cars" were located head to head. Inside of one car were students Ashley Burgess and Daniel Ackendorf who had come from the non-alcoholic gathering. In the other vehicle were Daniel McMurray and Claire Tilley, who had come from the gathering with alcohol. "Blood" and "hair" trailed down the door of the vehicle with Burgess and Ackendorf.

The students listened in silence to the emergency radio reporting an accident at the intersection of Portage Road and Route 20. Shortly afterward, two county sheriff cars arrived on the scene and the officers went to the cars to determine the severity of the accident. Ambulances and a fire truck then arrived and emergency personnel "cut" the roof off the car with Burgess and Ackendorf in order to assist them. Meanwhile, McMurray, who was "slightly injured," was being field-tested for signs of being under the influence of alcohol.

The radio broke in again, announcing that emergency personnel had determined one person's injuries to be severe enough to require transport by helicopter. Shortly after that, the radio reported that one person (Burgess) was believed to be dead. Emergency personnel gently extricated her body from the car and laid her on the grass. Her face and arms were bloody.

Not long afterward, Chautauqua County Coroner Warren Riles arrived and pronounced Burgess dead at the scene. When the director from Mason Funeral Home arrived, Burgess was wrapped in a body bag and placed in the hearse.

"I felt lost. It felt so real, how it can happen. It's so shocking," Burgess said later of the experience. ""I was happy to be able to deliver the message. I like to know that I made a difference."

Burgess said she hopes the presentation will help students be more aware of the consequences of their choices. "I hope it tells them to be cautious about drinking to be smart about it. Not only are they risking their own lives, but everyone around them," she said.

The radio reported that Ackendorf was in serious condition. He was immobilized and loaded into an ambulance to be rushed to Westfield Memorial Hospital.

"It really changed my outlook and judgment in making decisions for the rest of my life. I was definitely glad to be a part of this," Ackendorf said after the program.

The radio reported that Tilley was in critical condition and needed air transport to the hospital. A Starflight helicopter was called and before long, the sounds of the rotors could be heard approaching. The helicopter circled the area once and Hasson, who was narrating the events, said that was standard procedure is to determine the terrain before landing.

The helicopter landed close by and Tilley was quickly loaded into the craft. Once emergency personnel were clear, the helicopter lifted off and headed for Hamot in Erie.

"It opened my eyes," Tilley said after the experience. "Being from a small community, I hadn't been involved in anything like this. I don't see how it couldn't influence some of the students."

The situation was different with McMurray. His injuries were minor, but the officers on the scene determined that he was under the influence of alcohol. He was also found in possession of a small amount of marijuana. McMurray was arrested and taken for arraignment.

After the students returned to the auditorium, McMurray was arraigned before town justice Jerry LaPorte. He was charged with speed not reasonable and prudent; failure to keep right; failure to obey a traffic control device; unlawful possession of marijuana; driving while intoxicated; and vehicular manslaughter in the second degree.

"I felt separated, like I put myself in a place I never want to be," McMurray said afterwards. "I really hope I have influenced my peers in a beneficial way.My advice to classmates would be 'make the right decision. Sometimes it's not easy."

Many of the students watching the scene said that it did make them think about the danger of drinking and driving. "I'm hoping it (the simulation) will have somewhat of an impact, said senior Jesse Melnick. "I would never be stupid enough to get behind the wheel when drunk. I would rather have my life."

Junior Michelle Sanabria said: "It's crazy to know this can happen in real life. It makes me want to be careful what I consume and not to drink or do any kind of drugs."

Junior William Quagliana said: "It's scary to think that it can really happen. I hope it will help us just to know that so many people lives are at risk because of one thing."

Riles, who has been county coroner for 40 years, told the students that he has seen many incidents such as this and that the hardest part of his job is tell a student's parents that their son or daughter is dead.

"I was happy to be here and take part in this," Riles said later. "If we affect just one life, keep one kid from driving drunk, it's a success."

WACS high school principal Ivana Hite addressed the students after the simulation. "Remember that you are not invincibleIt's important to realize the effect this has on families, friends and the community," she said. "My stepson was killed by a drunk driver. Yet two lives were ruined that day. He never got to fulfill his plans, and the driver of the automobile has to live with what happened."

After the simulation, Offier Baideme told the students what to expect if arrested for a DWI. "You will be put in handcuffs, put in a police car, taken to the police station, given a breathalyzer test, and possibly be put in jail. If found guilty, you can expect a $1,500 fine and a six month suspension of your license. You may be without a drivers' license for a year or two years, depending on how long the entire process takes," he said.

Additionally, in New York State, a person convicted of DWI must have an ignition interlock device installed in their car at their own expense, Badieme said. This device, which cost about $1,500 to install, requires the operator to blow into a tube before the car can be started. If any alcohol is detected on the person's breath, the car won't start, he said.

Officer Baideme explained that in order to be arrested for driving under the influence, a person's blood alcohol level must be 0.08 or higher. Since alcohol affects teenagers differently than adults and teens tend to binge drink, they often have a higher BAC than they realize, he said.

Baideme told the students that the average cost for a person convicted of DUI in Chautauqua County is between $4,000 and $7,000, including fines and attorney's fees. However, insurance companies can refuse to pay for incidents caused by alcohol or drug use so the total cost can be much higher, he said.

Baideme noted that all of these costs are tiny compared to the high cost of auto insurance for the next ten years for anyone convicted of a DUI. Furthermore, "if you get arrested a second time, it will be a felony and your license will be revoked."

Baideme also told the pupils about Leandra's Law, which makes it an automatic felony to drive drunk with a person 15 or younger inside the vehicle in New York state. He reminded the audience that New York State has a zero tolerance law regarding alcohol use by anyone under the age of 21.

He said that for the first time, last year, Chautauqua County topped 300 DUI arrests. He also told the students that "your age group makes up 33 percent of all DUI arrests, but you are only 14 percent of the population."

Baideme said that marijuana is a huge issue among young people and 40 percent of drivers injured in accidents test positive for marijuana. He also noted that common prescription drugs such as those ordered for ADHD, depression and anxiety can act just like alcohol.

After McMurray was arrainged, the curtain was slowly drawn back revealing a casket and mourners. WACS student Meghan Bodenmiller sang "Slipped Away" by Avril Lavigne. A eulogy was given for Ashley and then students heard her voice, speaking about all of the people she knew and how she wished she could have told them how much she cared about them. "Do the right thing and save precious lives," she said. Then the curtain slowly closed and the stage faded to black.



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