Program drives home the point

Every 15 Minutes, which was presented at WWVA, shows the consequences of drunken driving.

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COLLEGE PLACE -- As Julia Fitzgerald spoke Thursday about her father's death after being hit by a drunken driver in 1975, a Walla Walla Valley Academy student stood up and passed a box of tissues to her fellow classmates.

"I avoid telling this story because it brings out a lot of raw pain, even after so many years," Fitzgerald, a WWVA teacher, told the room of high school students.

Fiztgerald's father had picked her up from preschool, and they were driving home in the rain, when their Volkswagen was hit by a drunken teen in a Camaro.

"I remember (dad) yelled, 'Hang on!'" Fitzgerald said. "Those were his last words to me."

Fitzgerald, who was 5, said she was ejected from the car and hit a traffic sign headfirst, fracturing her skull and smashing her nose. She remembers watching six drunken teens, unharmed, getting out of the other car.

"He was an amazing man" Fitzgerald said of her father, "And we've been missing him for 36 years."

Ruthy Elliott followed with a presentation about losing her daughter in a drunken-driving crash.

"She was the first one of our 10 children to graduate from college," Elliott said. "She loved the color orange to the point of driving people crazy."

"Everyone was drinking at this party, and they were drinking a lot," Elliott said of the crash. "She went head-on into a logging truck. There was nothing to recognize."

The emotionally charged presentations were part of the Every 15 Minutes program, a two-day drunken-driving awareness event that has been a feature of Walla Walla County schools for the last 15 years.

Officer Tim Bennett, spokesman for the Walla Walla Police Department, said area law enforcement and emergency services agencies conduct three to four programs each year at different schools.

During the first day of the program, every 15 minutes volunteer students "die," and are pulled out of class by a Grim Reaper. The charade powerfully illustrates that there is a fatality due to drunken driving every 15 minutes in the U.S. The "dead" students wear makeup or masks for the rest of the school day, and are not allowed to speak or interact with classmates.

The students also don't go home after school, but spend the evening with law enforcement personnel working on a skit and writing a "last letter" to their parents. Usually, the students' parents also receive a death notification from police officers.

"Nobody wanted to receive a death notice," Bennett said, adding parents find the notifications very painful, even though they know they are not real.

Lt. Bob Dutton, of the College Place Police Department has seen both sides of the program.

"I was actually a (volunteer) parent," Dutton said. "It's an amazing impact. It ends up being very emotional for the officers as well."

This year Dutton was helping run the program, and said after working with the students he is more committed than ever to the program.

During the assembly, some students read the letters they had written, and others performed a skit, with the help of officers and paramedics, about the consequences of drunken driving.

The program works, according to Bennett, who said since the WWPD began conducting the events 15 year ago, he has not seen a high school student involved in a fatal DUI crash. Bennett conscientiously rapped on a wooden podium afterward.

Bennett said he also sees an impact in the rest of the community as well.

"Society as a whole, I think, is becoming more responsible in regards to drunk driving," Bennett said.

Luke Hegdal can be reached at lukehegdal@wwub.com or 526-8326.

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