Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: Mt. Graham freshman Jordan Champ portrays a deceased passenger as firefighters remove him for the funeral home during the Mock DUI at EAC on Thursday, March 30.
By Jon Johnson
THATCHER – The firetruck pulls away and the crowd of 9th and 10th-grade students amassed at John Mickelson Field in Thatcher stare silently at the carnage before them; a mixture of twisted metal, shattered glass, and torn limbs.
Thankfully, this was the Graham County Substance Abuse Coalition’s bi-annual mock DUI exercise to demonstrate the dangers of driving while intoxicated or under the influence of drugs. First responders from throughout Graham County participated in the event, which showed an alleged drunk driving fatality collision play out in real-time to the audience of students from schools throughout Graham County.
The Coalition was aided in this effort by the Thatcher, Safford, Pima, and EAC Police departments, Graham County Sheriff’s Office, Department of Public Safety, Pima and Thatcher Fire, Lifeline Ambulance, and AirEvac and LifeNet helicopters.
Two wrecked cars were displayed crashed into each other (thanks to Nutcracker Towing of Pima for the placement and removal of the vehicles) and student actors portrayed victims and a drunk driver.
In the first car were driver Alissa Tefft, Emily Urista – Safford, 11th grade, front passenger, Diesel Hughes – Pima, 9th grade, rear passenger, and Jordan Champ – Mt. Graham, 9th grade, deceased drunk rear passenger; and in the purple car was drunk driver Olivia Madrid – Safford, 12th grade, and her passengers, Esperanza Guerrero – Pima, 12th grade, and Joel Cortez – Safford, 11th grade.
While Champ was deceased at the scene and was removed by a mortuary service in a body bag in a hearse, others had to be extricated from the vehicles by firefighters using powerful tools, including the infamous “Jaws of Life”.
Two of the passengers were deemed so injured that they had to be flown out for immediate medical assistance, while the drunk driver was not injured but was arrested and must face the consequences.
The student actors expressed their thoughts on the event to the Gila Herald and said they were proud to help spread the message.
“I think it’s a really cool experience just to know that if a drunk driver plowed into another car this is what would possibly happen,” Guerrero said. “Because I’m a visual learner and it’s just easier that way.”
Madrid, who portrayed the drunk driver agreed.
“I think it’s really cool because we get to see what it’s like up close and we get to show them what it’s like so they know not to drink and drive. And it’s pretty real – I feel like.”
Throughout the event, those in attendance watched the rescue unfold in real time with respect for the heaviness of what was occurring before them. It was a show of respect for the numerous men and women of all the first responders who participated in the event showing what they see time after time at crash scenes to give that lesson to them.
But even that was topped by the reverence given to Lynn “Grandma” Smith who spoke after the simulation was complete. Smith is a mainstay at the bi-annual event and talked about the tragedy that has befallen her family due to alcohol and substance abuse. Smith lost her son in a drunk driving crash 23 years ago at the age of 21; she also lost her oldest son, her grandson died in a car crash, and her daughter is serving a five-year prison sentence.
“My husband and I have buried two sons, (and) a grandson, and we have a child in prison,” Smith said. “And every bit of the losses that we’ve experienced have come from their use of alcohol and drugs. Our son died in the dirt with a car on top of him and his cousin standing beside him screaming, ‘no, it can’t be him.’”
Smith also gave the crowd the perspective of the parents and told them what happens after their children never come home.
“All you want to do is pull the covers over your head and say ‘tomorrow I’m going to wake up and this is not going to be my reality.’ And you have to take money you don’t have and plan a funeral for a child who you don’t want to be dead. What your parents are doing after you die is horrible,” Smith said.
The final speaker of the day was Graham County Chief Deputy County Attorney C. Allan Perkins, who explained the repercussions for those who survive such tragedies. He explained the consequences of being found guilty of DUI charges from the most basic to the most serious. For reference to the most extreme cases involving fatalities, Perkins recalled a recent case involving the death of El Paso Police Department detective Richard B. Allbee Jr., 51, who was killed by John Savage, 52, of Globe, when Savage was driving impaired and crossed the centerline on U.S. Highway 70 on the Bylas Bridge on Sunday, Feb. 9, 2020.
Perkins vividly described the collision of the two trucks they were both traveling in and how Allbee’s leg was ripped from his body and the rest tossed into the rear as Savage’s truck ran over them. Allbee’s wife, Norma, suffered extensive injuries and was flown out for medical assistance, along with Savage, who was also severely injured. Savage later signed a plea agreement and was sentenced to a total of 19 years in prison for what he did to the Allbees while driving intoxicated.
“His left leg, his left hip was broken, and he’s had four reconstructive surgeries on that hip,” Perkins said. “He cannot walk. He will be in a wheelchair probably for the rest of his life – eventually, he may have that leg removed. And he’s going to spend the next 19 years of his life in prison. I know that as young people it’s hard sometimes to take such things seriously, but some of us like Mrs. Smith and myself and all of the first responders who have been around and have seen this want to impress upon you the importance of not getting behind the wheel when you’re drinking or getting in a car with someone else who is drinking.”
Thatcher Police officer Brooks Knight narrated the event and told the children in the crowd that while they can be forgiven for drinking, that can’t happen if they are dead, so he implored them to call the officers for a ride if they ever find themselves in a situation where either they are their ride is impaired.
“Someone in this crowd is probably going to drink underage, ok – not the end of the world,” Knight told the crowd. “As a cop, from our standpoint, we can get over that pretty easy as long as you’re cool about it. The thing we can’t fix is if you decide to get in a car and drive. If you get somewhere you’ve had a few too many – whether you’re under 18 or 21 and I’m not condoning drinking or whatever, but if you don’t want to call your parents to give you a ride – you can’t find a ride – we would rather come pick you up than you try to drive home and get in a wreck.”
Graham County Substance Abuse Coalition Director Kathy Grimes closed out the event by thanking all those who took part and expressing her pleasure at the respect shown by the crowd throughout the event. The school children were then allowed down to the field to speak with the various first responders and check out their equipment, including the two helicopters, before heading back to their various schools.