An eleborate mock crash scene set up Thursday morning at Wauwatosa East High School was only the beginning of an intensive two-day course of events designed to drive home the danger of mixing alcohol and automobiles.
For some students, Thursday's mockup didn't quite live up to its billing in shock value: It was a little too staged, they thought. They were kept at a distance while firefighters and police officers swarmed around two smashed-up cars that supposedly contained friends of theirs – but they were barely visible.
And then, too, the scene was crawling with camera operators intruding on every scene, poking lenses between paramedics and victims, police and perpetrators.
It was a little shocking just knowing that was your friend out there, lying under a sheet on the hood of a car, knowing she represented herself as dead. But you couldn't really see her – and you knew she wasn't really dead.
Really, students said, the coolest part was when the helicopter landed. Whoever thought they'd bring a helicopter and land it on the soccer field?
It wasn't until Friday morning, in a school assembly, that the shock and awe of Thursday's drama came home. Because what students had really been, then, were spectators on a movie set.
A 24-hour docu-drama in the works
Between 10:30 a.m. Thursday, when the crash scene ended, and 9:30 a.m. Friday, when the assembly began, a large film crew and editors from Milwaukee Public TV and Milwaukee Area Technical College had turned the crash footage, plus much more that had been put together over months of work, into a movie.
"Every 48 Minutes" – the average interval at which someone in the United States is killed by a drunken driver – provided all the closeups of doomed friends that anyone in the audience could want, or could stand.
It didn't just show the aftermath of a car crash. It told the story of choices made before and consequences suffered afterward.
There were Tori Hughes and Ben Plaisted, soberly studying math, making progress, getting a text invitation to a bonfire, deciding to go. An innocent choice. Ben decided to invite his best friend Nick Pridgeon. An unfortunate choice that night.
There were Nick, Sammy Osinski, Christina Chen and Tim O'Brien, all at Nick's place, bored. They decided to play beer pong. A poor enough choice, in that they were underage. Then Nick got Ben's invitation and, under pressure from his friends, agreed to drive.
A very bad choice – or in fact, as Nick would learn, in the eyes of the law, an "intent" to abrogate responsibility.
Nick's car would ram broadside into the driver's door of Ben's car. Ben would be trapped, horribly injured, while his passenger, Tori, wailed in terror, covered with his blood, and called 911.
Christina and Tim groaned in Nick's back seat with non-life-threatening injuries. Nick himself staggered out from the driver's seat, stunned at what he had done.
Sammy, in Nick's front passenger seat, went through the windshield. First emergency responders would check her, cover her, and leave her. She was past helping.
Real-time response is slower than supposed
Action movie scenes show furiously fast responses. They aren't realistic. It takes time to cut the doors and roof off a car to get at a trapped victim. Lots of time.
So even while Ben's life was ebbing, pinned between his steering wheel and his seat, caught in a cage of twisted metal, Nick was being questioned, subjected to sobriety tests, giving a breath test.
A distant thrumming from the sky to the northwest announced the arrival of a Flight for Life helicopter, coming for Ben, coming to save one life if it could be saved.
In another scene, a Milwaukee County Medical Examiner pronounces Sammy dead and takes her off to the morgue.
In rapid cuts, Nick is arrested, handcuffed and driven off to the police station for booking; doctors and nurses work diligently to save Ben at Froedtert Hospital, to no avail – he won't make it; Nick is held and booked for homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle; police are notified of Ben's death and a second count of homicide is noted.
Enough? No. A Wauwatosa police officer must pay a vistit to break the news to Ben's parents, who don't even know an accident has occurred.
A host of institutions and individuals involved
By the time "Every 48 Minutes" is over, it's hard to imagine anyone who watched it ever thinking of getting in a car with a driver who has been drinking.
But it is a movie, and like the crash scene itself, is only a mockup, if an artful one.
The many creators of this two-day event were not done, either before or after the credits rolled.
Wauwatosa East High School, the Wauwatosa School District, the Wauwatosa Police Department, the Wauwatosa Fire Department, MPTV and MATC, Flight for Life, Froedtert Hospital and the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner's Office all made commitments to educate students about the choices and consequences of drinking and driving.
But so did many of the students themselves, and their parents as well.
The idea for all this was hatched in September, at the start of the school year, East Principal Nick Hughes said.
After the mock scene Thursday morning, a student was "killed" every 48 minutes during the school day – they earned a red X across the face, a T-shirt noting their time of death, and absolute silence for the rest of the day as members of "the walking dead."
And after Friday's movie, things got even more personal and very real.
Familiar authority figures have seen it up close
Tosa Police Officer Tracy Burbach, the school resource officer at Longfellow Middle School, told the student body how earlier in her career at Appleton's Central High School, got the call that five of her students had been in a crash.
Alcohol was involved, every one of them legally drunk at any age. The car flew into a concrete wall at 70 mph. All had to be cut out of the wreck. Three were dead. The other two were critically injured.
Burbach said she had and would carry that the rest of her life – as would five families and many, many friends.
Wauwatos East Principal Nick Hughes was master of ceremonies, introducing the film and speakers. So it was a bit of surprise when he took the microphone as a speaker with a story of his own.
When he was in high school, Hughes said, he and his 20-year-old brother had been at a party, and his brother had been drinking. Let's go to my place, his brother said.
Nick declined. He was in football and needed to get his rest.
Nick Hughes' brother, driving home with his girlfriend, lost control of his car and slammed into a light pole that night. He wasn't badly injured. He got out to check the damage, tripped over a high-voltage electrical wire he had downed, and was electrocuted.
Students did not, perhaps, know there were so many ways to inflict tragedy on oneself or others through drinking and driving, much less that their principal was a person so intimately involved in loss and longing.
They would learn more.
The painful truth: You've killed someone
Thomas Kral was a Wauwatosa boy, grew up here, went to Wauwatosa East High, graduated in 2001. While he was in high school, an East boy was killed when he rammed into a tree. The boy had been drinking, was legally drunk.
It didn't mean a lot to Kral, he said. He didn't know the boy. A lot of kids – 400 – got out of school to go to his funeral. Kral wasn't one of them. It wasn't relevant to him and it wasn't going to happen to him.
Two years later, Kral had a bad night. He was drinking at home with a friend. They ran out of drink, the friend went home. Kral wasn't ready to call it a night.
He drove to downtown Milwaukee to meet another friend, and they kept drinking. Then they got into an argument. Kral got in his car, already seething over something he can hardly even remember.
Then his girlfriend, also from East, called on his cell phone. They had dated for three years. She could tell he was drunk. She knew he was driving.
"You're doing crazy 'stuff'..." she said.
"Different language," said Kral. "Anyway, I said, 'I'll show you something eff-ing crazy."
"I was driving in downtown Milwaukee, and there was a red light in front of me, and I said, 'Screw it, I'm going through.'
"I hit another car coming through the intersection, right behind the driver's door, and he was ejected," Kral said.
But amazingly, Kral said, he was told the victim, crumpled against the curb, wasn't dead.
In the booking room at a Milwaukee police station, he said, he watched the arresting officer write out the arrest report. Then the officer got a phone call.
Kral watched, he said, as without a word, the officer erased the charging line, "operating while intoxicated causing great bodily injury" and replaced it with "homicide by intoxicated use of a motor vehicle."
His victim had died.
Kral spent three years in prison and is still on probation, under supervision and an absolute sobriety order. He has an alcohol interlock on his car.
Kral's girlfriend, who he hoped to marry someday, sent him a no-contact letter in prison. As for his friends, he received three letters in three years.
Kral is rebuilding his life now, he said, just taking up about where he left off 10 years ago. But, he said, "I live with it every day, and the family of my victim lives with it every day."
"They were very forgiving. They asked that I not be sent to prison. They wanted me to do community service.
"But in this day and age, you're going to go to prison. And I can't argue with that."