Returning From ‘Death’ – Student Recounts Experiences From Beyond

Every 15 Minutes is an educational program that teaches students the dangers of drinking and driving through a staged crash taking place on prom night. Juniors and seniors are cast in the mock crash and some are chosen to be members of the “Living Dead,” students that represent those who passed from alcohol related accidents.



“Living Dead” participant Lily Esparza (12) writes a letter to her family as if she had died in a car crash that day. The goal of the exercise, and the entire experience, is to recreate what it would be like to lose a classmate, friend, or family member in a drunk driving accident. Behind her, another participant James Branning (12) writes his own, which he read during the assembly the next morning.

I’ve been in a car with an intoxicated driver before. They said they were fine, and though I didn’t believe them, I didn’t want to be a problem.

I realize now it’s better to be a problem than to be dead. Trust me, I’ve been dead for a day.

When I was first nominated to be a “Living Dead” I honestly didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I got an idea during the first informational meeting, when a father started crying at the mere thought of writing his son’s obituary. My own dad was making jokes, a clear indication of his discomfort with the idea as well. In addition, both my mother and best friend L Gustavino, were particularly shaken by what I had committed to. It seemed that I was the only one in my life that wasn’t freaked out by the idea of being dead.

“You better not make this too traumatizing for me,” Gustavino said to me the day I was to be taken.

I was first impacted emotionally by the mock crash. I knew what to expect, but seeing the mangled bodies of my peers made me uncomfortable. I thought help would arrive for the living students much sooner than it did. As time went on, however, no one came and I couldn’t help but grow anxious. It was enough time for the victims to become aware of what happened, to be scared.

The mock crash scene we saw was based on an actual local car crash. I thought about the real victims who were in the other car that was hit. They did nothing wrong, yet they ended the night bleeding out on the pavement. When I thought about them, I started to realize the gravity of what I was about to experience.

I died during sixth period. Four police officers came to lay a sheet over my desk and read my obituary, but the Grim Reaper took me away before I could hear it. I felt a strange sense of FOMO (fear of missing out) at this, realizing that in reality, the dead don’t get to hear their obituaries. I will never hear my own.

All of the Living Dead participants were quarantined in the ASB room throughout the day. Our phones were taken as soon as we died to simulate the isolation of death. To further recreate what it would be like for our friends and families if we were to die, we were taken to a hotel overnight.

Two of the police officers who participated in the mock crash and obituary readings joined us at the hotel to share their perspective on drunk driving, as they frequently see the carnage it can create.

If I couldn’t even walk with these goggles on, how could anybody drive?

The officers had us try on goggles that simulate what it’s like when you have a blood alcohol content of 0.17 – 0.20 at night. What was at first a fun, light-hearted challenge to walk in a straight line soon made me somber. I couldn’t walk or hold my leg up, I had little control over my balance and was uncontrollably swaying side to side. I imagined trying to control a steering wheel like this, trying to control the brakes. If I couldn’t even walk with these goggles on, how could anybody drive?

We spend so much of our lives in cars that we forget that while they are convenient modes of transportation, they can easily become death traps. We allow the ease of driving to overshadow the real danger of controlling a metal box traveling at high speeds. Driving is dangerous enough with a clear mind; after trying on the drunk goggles the idea of driving with anything other than perfect sobriety is terrifying.

I thought back to the mock crash, how the driver was barely injured as he looked at the devastation he caused. I asked the police officers why that is so often the case. Why the innocents always seem to bear the most consequences from the accident. They told me that the driver’s intoxication is actually what saves them, as their bodies are relaxed and are better able to absorb the impact. However, sober individuals instinctually brace for the crash, which leads to devastating injuries, like broken femurs and fractured spines.

I didn’t want to say goodbye to anyone, but at least I got a chance. Victims of drunk driving don’t get that opportunity.

My view was further cemented by the speaker we saw, Bobby Petrocelli. 37 years ago, a drunk driver crashed through his bedroom while he and his wife were sleeping. This driver had the equivalent of 24 beers in a two and a half hour time period. Petrocelli was propelled into the next room, sustaining serious injuries. He told us the rubber from the tires melted into his skin, making it bubble, and his cheek was so severely torn that his tongue was hanging out of it.

His wife’s fate was somehow more horrific. She had been caught and twisted into the mattress and trapped under the truck, dying of suffocation. Just like the victims from the simulated crash, she had enough time to become aware of what happened. She had enough time to be scared.

Following this tragedy, Petrocelli became a speaker. He shared with us his belief that if the driver had received the emotional support he needed, he wouldn’t have been drunk that night in the first place, and therefore never would have killed his wife. Petrocelli was able to forgive that man because he believes that forgiveness is better for yourself than it is for anyone else. He started the You Matter movement in order to spread the message that everyone means something. He hopes he can prevent people from excessive substance use through this message.

After Petrocelli left, we were given a short break before starting the most emotionally intense part of the experience – writing a goodbye letter to our families.

If we were killed in a drunk driving accident, we would have had no chance to say goodbye, but this was meant to give us that opportunity.

I didn’t know how to say goodbye. I focused on just my dad, as he was at home writing a letter to me too. I had to restart three times. It was too hard to find the words I never thought I would have to say, words I never want to say again. I teared up several times, others were crying too. I didn’t want to say goodbye to anyone, but at least I got a chance. Victims of drunk driving don’t get that opportunity.

At the end of the night we were able to share our thoughts on the experience with the whole group. Many participants shared stories of loved ones who struggle with alcoholism and mental illness. Coming from a family with generations of substance abuse, I always felt so alone in my experiences with the disease that is alcoholism. Students I had never met before that day shared burdens that I thought only I carried.

That was the biggest lesson I learned from my death, that we truly are not alone. More people than you could ever realize share your same pain, shame, and even some of the same experiences. The hurt that leads people to alcoholism is hurt that we all have, hurt we can help each other carry.

It’s true that preventing drunk driving is taking your friends keys, but it’s also listening and comforting them in times of need.

The next morning I fiercely missed my friends and family. The break from my phone had been fun, but I was ready to get back to my normal life. I think all of us participants were. Going back to school knowing that my friends and parents were so close and yet still so unreachable was torture.

All of the “Living Dead” lined up to walk into the junior and senior exclusive assembly. I felt a strange juxtaposition between excitement to see my loved ones again and the sheer terror of being stared at by so many people.

It’s true that preventing drunk driving is taking your friends keys, but it’s also listening and comforting them in times of need.

The most emotional part of the experience, the letter writing, was exposed for all to see at the assembly. I was astounded by the bravery of James Branning and Kyla Altheide’s mother, who had volunteered to read their letters. It was heartbreaking to hear and no one was even dead.

The student who read their letter is a friend of mine. I couldn’t imagine if he was dead.

At the end of the assembly I practically jumped out of my seat to see my mom and dad. I don’t think I’ve ever hugged my friends so tightly. The people we love are the most important things about life, and drunk driving only rips loved people out of this world.