It was supposed to be a magical night. But as the rock group The Eagles sing, "In a New York minute, everything can change." After a great prom, one last night of fun before graduation and summer vacation, something went terribly wrong when two cars full of students from Paonia and Hotchkiss high schools collided in the early morning hours.
The accident, which resulted in countless shattered lives, was part of a biennial mock crash drill intended to drive home the serious consequences of drinking while intoxicated or distracted. The worst of those consequences is something no one wants their kids to learn the hard way.
Mock crashes are put on for high school students across the country, and typically around prom and graduation time when students are likely to attend parties and be tempted to celebrate with drugs and alcohol. The drill involved numerous agencies and first responders, including the Hotchkiss Fire District, Delta County Sheriff, Colorado State Patrol, North Fork Ambulance and Montrose-based CareFlight.
Event coordinator Kris Stewart, with North Fork Ambulance, said this is the first time both schools participated in the event.
Even as a drill, the experience can be very upsetting, not only for the students, who are both the actors and the witnesses, but for the rescue workers. "It takes an emotional toll," said Stewart. School counselors were on hand for students who wanted to talk to someone following the drill.
Paonia senior Bailee Campbell came upon the crash and dialed 911. "This could be real, these are my friends," said Campbell. "Once I pulled up on the scene I ... saw my friends and the way they were -- Andrew (Oviedo) with a stick poking out of his chest, Kelsey's (Stroud) lacerated neck, and it really affected me."
To prepare for the part, she watched YouTube videos of mock crashes and real accidents filmed with police dash cams. Campbell said she mentally put herself in a real-life situation.
Campbell said she's fortunate that she hasn't experienced a tragedy of that level, but knows that some of the people there had, and were strongly affected. "I know there are some people who won't take it seriously," said Campbell. "Drinking and driving is very prominent in a lot of the deaths of people our age."
In a post-drill assembly, Sergeant Scott Gardner with the Colorado State Patrol told students that 15 teenagers a day die in car accidents in the U.S. When he asked students wearing red jackets to stand up, 18 stood. "Look around," he told students. "By approximately midnight tonight, this many teenagers will be dead today."
Gardner spoke from personal experience and from the heart, pleading with students, both drivers and passengers, to leave their cell phones off and do everything possible to cut down on distractions. He urged them to follow all of the laws and wear their seatbelts, no matter how un-cool it may seem. "I'm telling you right now, seatbelts save lives," said Gardner.
The drill can take an emotional toll on first responders, but also provides valuable training, said Stewart. "It puts more stresses on them to be more prepared."
The drill involved two cars and two drunk drivers. In the red Ford sedan driven by Echo Barnes-Miller, passenger Cara Littlefield will live with a brain injury and Kelsey Stroud, who wasn't wearing a seat belt and was partially ejected, died at the scene. Miller-Barnes failed a roadside sobriety test and was handcuffed and arrested.
In the second car, Kevin Chavez also wasn't wearing a seatbelt and was ejected and died at the scene, Chelsea Meilner lost a lot of blood but survived, and Avery Austin suffered a serious arm injury. Driver Andrew Oviedo was impaled by a tree and airlifted by CareFlight helicopter to an area hospital.
The lucky ones, Tim Helmer and Morgan Miller, suffered only minor injuries. Like all of the mock crash survivors, they will live with the memories of seeing their friends dead and dying.
"It's scary because it's like a real-life event that can actually happen," said Hotchkiss senior Will Drbohlav. "It's eye-opening, that's for sure. Makes you think about decisions," and how they can affect one's life.
"At first it was really scary," but then it turned into a teaching moment, said HHS student Alyssa Palecki. She is planning to be an EMT. While it was a drill, Palecki, who has friends whose parents were killed by a drunk driver, said it was a little more realistic than she expected. The experience, she said, strengthens her decision to be a first responder and makes her realize how important it is to not let friends drive while impaired or distracted by texting or other means.
During the assembly, students watched a pre-recorded video as Miller-Barnes, whose blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) was more than two times the legal limit, was charged with two counts of vehicular homicide, DUI and other offenses and booked into the Delta County Detention Facility.
Miller-Barnes and her family were faced with a mock $25,000 cash bond. Rather than graduate and go off to college, she faced more than 25 years in jail.
A third vehicular homicide would be added later after Oviedo died from massive chest injuries.
Sgt. Gardner shared a story of his best friend and classmate at Cedaredge High School, whom he compared to Paonia star athlete Taylor Walters, and who drove his motorcycle after drinking. At age 20, Gardner found himself attending his best friend's funeral.
"When you get in these vehicles, when you leave here today, think about being part of the solution, not being part of the problem," said Gardner, his voice often cracking. "I suggest, and I ask, and I plead with you to be part of the solution."
While it was a difficult part to play, "I really, really wanted to do it," said Campbell. "I just want to be a part of, maybe, saving somebody's life. If it could mean that one person didn't get in a car with a drunk person, or didn't get in the car while they were drunk, that's my main reason for doing it."