BARNEGAT – The piercing wails of sirens echoed through the air as police cars and emergency vehicles raced toward Barnegat High School.
The scene outside the high school was shockingly gruesome in the aftermath of a head-on collision. One of the drivers stood outside his car; his face twisted in horror as he gazed upon the lifeless body of his friend who had been hurled through the shattered windshield.
Two teenage girls remained trapped within the wreckage of the other vehicle, one in full panic mode. Despite the passenger’s visible signs of breathing, she remained unresponsive, intensifying the already harrowing scene that unfolded before the eyes of onlookers.
Seated on outdoor bleachers, the Class of 2023 watched intently as what seemed to be a genuine tragedy played out before them. The scene was not real, however. Instead, the entire set-up was part of Project Crash, a meticulously planned event specifically designed to educate students about the perils of driving under the influence.
The presence of actual first responders enhanced the authenticity of the crash scene and its aftermath. As a result, while four high school seniors portrayed the accident victims, the remaining individuals did not need a script to perform their regular jobs.
Barnegat Police arrived first at the scene, with the Barnegat First Aid Squad and Barnegat Fire Department following suit. In addition, Hackensack Meridian Health dispatched a helicopter to the high school field to facilitate the medical transportation of one of the feigned injury victims.
Ensuring prompt emergency medical aid was the topmost concern at the crash site. The first officer to arrive evaluated the scene and shared his findings. Next, first aid squad members did their assessments and preliminary treatment. Firefighters promptly extracted the two girls who could not free themselves from the car. One of them was swiftly prepared for transport to the hospital via an ambulance.
Meanwhile, the severity of the situation amplified as the unresponsive girl suffered cardiac arrest and needed resuscitation. The Hackensack Meridian team carefully placed her on a stretcher and loaded the victim into the helicopter.
With an eerie lifelike feel to the entire scenario, the audience remained silent. Event organizers revealed that the student actors, Skylar Dasti, Emily Medina, Aiden Ortiz, and Joseph Sanchez, had only practiced their roles a handful of times. Nevertheless, their performance had a sobering effect in delivering the message to make responsible choices.
The driver of the initial vehicle remained uninjured, and the officer interrogated him regarding the events leading up to the collision. Additionally, the policeman detected the scent of alcohol on the driver’s breath and inquired about the quantity consumed.
“People were hurt,” said the officer. “I need to know how much you had to drink.”
While saying drinking two beers didn’t seem like a big deal, it was enough to warrant a sobriety test. A hush continued throughout the audience as students watched what would lead to another consequence of driving under the influence.
“You are being placed under arrest,” the officer stated. “For suspicion of driving while intoxicated.”
The totality of the offenses was even more shattering, as the male juvenile was charged with DWI, vehicular manslaughter, and assault by auto. Bad choices led to all-around horrific consequences.
Barnegat Police Officers Michael Moore and Julie Palasits are assigned to the local law enforcement agency’s traffic division. Inspired by the successful implementation of Project Crash by the Stafford Police Department, they began working with the local school district to introduce the same initiative to Barnegat.
Moore said they secured a template from Stafford as a starting point and then tweaked it. The event was quickly planned, with Barnegat deciding to exclude one group Stafford included as part of their mock crash scene.
“Stafford actually has a funeral home come out and take out the dead body,” Palasits explained. “We figured we’d wait and see if we want to do that another year.”
Barnegat High School Vice Principal Frank Pannullo was already familiar with Project Crash and recognized it as an excellent means of conversing with students about making responsible decisions. With the senior prom coming up soon, the timing seemed right.
During prom season, many teenagers attend parties, social gatherings, and events involving driving, increasing the risk of accidents due to impaired or distracted driving. In introducing the program to the senior class, Principal Pat Magee made something clear.
“The purpose of this event is to educate all of us of the dangers of distracted or impaired driving,” said Magee. “Not just in prom season, but in everyday life.”
Joseph Solda, who works as the chief flight nurse for Hackensack Meridian Health, was an invaluable resource for Barnegat’s first Project Crash. Solda, in his 39th year of nursing, said he believed the program could make kids think twice about drinking and driving. Solda has personally participated in several Project Crash events.
“At the end, we hit home and bring the student actors and actresses out,” said Solda. “They start answering questions. That’s more powerful than anything I can ever do.”
Authorities are fully aware that alcohol does not stand alone as the sole substance capable of impairing a driver who operates a vehicle. Cannabis and prescription drugs have also been identified as potential risks in this regard, as pointed out by a speaker from MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving).
The week before Project Crash, members of Barnegat High School’s DART Club met up with the Communities That Cares group to make a powerful statement against underaged drinking.
Students involved in DART Club, short for “Drinking Awareness and Responsibility for Teens,” visited three liquor stores in Barnegat with hopes of discouraging underage drinking through a simple yet impactful method.
Armed with specially designed stickers featuring eye-catching warning messages, students took action by placing reminders on alcohol selections that tend to attract underage drinkers. The intention was to raise awareness among both buyers and sellers, emphasizing the law against purchasing or selling alcohol to individuals under the age of 21.
One of the highlights of stopping in liquor stores came when a store clerk made a startling revelation about the number of people trying to purchase alcohol with fake identification cards. As a result, the store has accumulated a substantial stack of confiscated cards, which they diligently retain to deter repeat attempts by prospective customers.
Barnegat Police Lt. Jeff Ryan is an active member of the Communities That Cares coalition, which focuses on a proven prevention system against substance abuse and works to make a difference. Ryan emphasized his concerns about underage drinking.
“I cannot stress enough the importance for parents to make it clear to their children that underage drinking is unacceptable,” said Ryan. “It is not just about drinking and driving; there’s way more to it.”
“Children who begin drinking at the age of 15 have a significantly greater chance of developing an alcohol addiction than those who wait until they are 21,” Ryan continued. “Kids are a greater risk of unplanned pregnancy, increased suicide rates, as well as other accidental deaths.”
Ryan implored parents to act as parents, rather than their children’s friends.