By Vanesa Brashier, firstname.lastname@example.org
Discussing the loss of a friend killed in 2002 still brings tears to the eyes of Tarkington Fire Chief Paul Gregory.
“I woke up crying today,” Gregory said on April 16 following a mock accident for this year’s Forever Changed program at Tarkington High School. “In 2002, [Liberty County Sheriff’s Sgt.] Brett Audilet and I started hosting this program in Tarkington with our friend, Cpl. David King. A couple of months later, David was killed when he hit a horse while responding to a call on FM 1960 in Dayton about an alleged drunk passed out on the train tracks.”
As fire chief, Gregory felt and witnessed the emotional toll that tragic accidents take on families and communities. Earlier this year, he responded to an accident that claimed three members of a single family, including a Tarkington High School student, and has felt the loss of two former Tarkington students – friends who were killed in separate accidents just weeks apart. One of the students killed was a student-actor who participate in the 2017 presentation of Forever Changed.
Forever Changed begins with a dramatization of a drunk-driving accident, staged outside of a participating high school. The emergency response to the mock accident is shown in real time with students portraying both victims and perpetrators. The students are cut from vehicles in the staged accident, then carried to hospitals or morgues depending on their assigned roles.
Throughout the day, students are removed from their classrooms to become part of the Walking Dead to signify the number of people killed every day in drunk-driving accidents. A mock trial is held on the afternoon of the first day. On the second day, high school juniors and seniors assemble to hear from a guest speaker – usually the victim of a drunk-driving accident. For this year’s assembly, they heard from the mother of a young woman was killed in a drunk-driving accident and the man who was paralyzed in the crash.
The student-actors who participate in Forever Changed are invited to an overnight retreat where they discuss the importance of making good decisions and write letters to their parents to share all the things they will never accomplish in life as they were “killed” in a drunk-driving accident.
For many of the first responders volunteering their time on April 16, the day began with the staged fatal accident and ended with a real one in which a motorcyclist was killed. The fatal accident took place on SH 105, just a couple of miles from Tarkington High School.
“My day ended with a real fatality caused by too much speed and a lapse of personal safety,” said Pct. 5 Justice of the Peace Wade Brown following the fatal crash that evening.
Earlier in the day, Brown expressed his frustration over a recent increase in fatality accidents in the Tarkington area.
“Just seeing the kids who were killed in these car wrecks, their deaths were senseless,” he said. “The kids appear to not be listening to what their parents and teachers have told them about something as easy as wearing a seatbelt.”
Brown recalls a time when a young person could make the trek from Tarkington to Dayton without seeing many vehicles on the road. Those times have changed.
“When I was growing up here and we had to go to Dayton, you might meet one or two cars on the road, and that seemed like a lot of traffic back then,” the judge said. “Nowadays there are so many vehicles on the road. One little error – like putting your eyes down for one second to look at your phone, change the radio station or to pick up a drink – can be catastrophic.”
The recent deaths of past and present Tarkington students almost caused this year’s Forever Changed program to be canceled, according to Chief Gregory.
“Canceling the program would have been a bad idea,” he said. “I think these kids need a slap in the face from reality.”
Tarkington ISD Superintendent Marc Keith says the last few months have been a sobering reminder of the dangers of impaired driving.
“The thing we are hoping to stress is don’t drink and drive, don’t text and drive, or use drugs and drive,” Keith said. “Cell phones have gotten to be just as dangerous as anything else. We want our students to be responsible citizens. That’s what we are hoping for all our students. Hopefully we can demonstrate it through this program, so we don’t have to live out any more tragedies.”
Texas Emergency Hospital participated in the drill with nurses and doctors going through the paces as if it was a real emergency. The student-actors who were transported to the Cleveland hospital were selected to be fatalities in the drill, so the hospital had Rev. Carl Williamson with Calvary Baptist Church standing by to offer spiritual and emotional support to the families.
Though they knew it was a drill, and had prepared themselves for the experience ahead of time, seeing their children in distress was a gut punch for many parents.
“It brought tears to my eyes,” said Tommy Luckey, whose daughter, Natalie, was one of the fatalities.
“Hearing her scream ‘my friend is dead’ at the crash scene ripped my heart,” added her mother, Betty. “Even though we knew this was not real, to hear her scream like that was awful. We kept reassuring her she was going to be all right.”
As prom and graduation season approaches, the timing of the drill was important, said Patti Foster, CEO of Texas Emergency Hospital.
“The kids in this drill can get up and go home after this ends but others will never get that opportunity. A person doesn’t even have to do anything wrong to be a victim of a drunk driver. They could be in the car coming toward you,” Foster said. “It’s very important for our kids, especially our seniors and juniors, to know what could happen. We love them and want them to realize if they get in the car and they’ve been drinking or driving, or even if they are the passenger of someone who has been drinking, they might be killed.”