LITTLE FALLS, NJ - The scene was a grisly one. Another horrific vehicular collision that involved victims all too young. The fatal crash site consisted of two automobiles, and one of the drivers had been consuming alcoholic beverages prior to getting behind the wheel.
The teen victims' serious injuries were well within view of a crowd that was gathering. They were covered in blood and reeling in pain, including one teen who was unconscious and later succumbed to her injuries.
Luckily, this time this scene was just a staged traffic accident hosted by Passaic Valley High School. Once again, the high school showed the consequences of drinking and driving to its senior class.
The setting of the accident was at the back field of the high school adjacent to Hopson Avenue. Sirens blared and emergency first responders rushed to the scene to assist the victims and evaluate their injuries. The realistic trauma witnessed by students in attendance was staged to give them a glimpse of what could happen when someone intoxicated gets behind the wheel. Shock and concern was etched on the facial expressions of many of those in attendance, including staff onlookers.
The program, in its eighth year, is typically held towards the end of the school year, during the prom and graduation season, according to Raymond Rotella, principal.
"We run this program for our seniors prior to graduation," explained Rotella. "I think they can relate to this because it's many of their own friends and acquaintances who are drama students and are the ones taking part in this horrific staged traffic accident and who wind up getting hurt, so it becomes personal for them. They learn the lesson of how this can occur in real life when alcohol impairs driving judgment. The goal is that they take with them what they've experienced here today and make the right choices after they graduate."
The idea for the driving under the influence (DUI) simulation began in 2009 and was a collaboration between Sgt. James Minnella of the Little Falls Police Department, Detective John Vanak, former PV school security officer, and Detective Sgt. James Briggs. Minnella was the high school's security resource officer when the program began.
At the crash site, as students looked on, one of the drivers was given a breathalyzer and made to walk a line, by Patrolman Al Pinnola, who is in his first year as the high school's resource officer. Local police who deal with DUI stops repeatedly, say the first test typically given to a suspected driver is the horizontal gaze, where a pen is held up in front of the driver's eyes to see if the object can be fixated upon.
A hearse from Gaita Funeral Home drove off with the fatality, while those injured were taken by emergency medical technicians from the Little Falls Rescue Squad.
Pinnola addressed students directly after the demonstration.
"This is real and it happens," he said. "After seven years of being in law enforcement, I can't even describe to you what I've seen. Be adults and get a designated driver. Use Uber or carpool - just do what you have to do to get home safely."
He also added that he felt many students don't want to call their parents whenever they may need ride home.
"Many young people tell me that they don't want their parents to know they've been out drinking, but it's better than what could happen - what was shown here here today."
Organizers of the demonstration wish to thank the Little Falls Police Department, Little Falls Fire Department, Little Falls Rescue Squad, NJ State Police, Gaita Funeral Home and PVs drama students. They also thanked J&J Towing in Little Falls.