Community joins together to deliver message to teens
by Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
Upsala students in grades 9 – 12 witnessed something a person hopes never to have to watch — the aftermath of a fatal car crash.
Morrison County’s annual mock car crash was held in Upsala for the second time, April 25. The effort involved many Upsala and Morrison County community members, all seeking to save at least one life by opening young drivers’ eyes to the consequences of distracted and/or impaired driving.
Following a short film moderated by a Minnesota State Patrol officer, the students were transported to the Upsala school bus garage, where bleachers were set up for them to watch the event.
Amid the sound of teens chatting in the near-freezing temperatures was broadcast the eerie sound of tires screeching and vehicles crashing. Silence descended as tarps were peeled off a large car-shaped mound in front of the bleachers. Suddenly, screaming could be heard from multiple people inside the smashed car.
Students may have recognized the car as one that used to belong to the Peter and Joan Boeckermann family. Their daughter, Hope, an Upsala High School junior, was the driver of that vehicle in fall 2012, when it rolled. Because she was wearing her seat belt, she suffered only minor injuries.
“She said it was her seat belt and the little angel pin on her visor that saved her,” said Hope’s mom, Joan.
The “driver” of the car quickly exited the vehicle, discovering the dead body of his front seat passenger on the ground next to the vehicle. One of the back seat passengers was able to get out of the car, and she called 911.
The other back seat passenger was trapped in the vehicle and had to wait for first responders to free her.
Jeff Jelinski, former county emergency manager and current county commissioner, narrated the event, announcing each step as the community responded to the mock crash exactly as if it were real.
“This takes a lot of planning,” Jelinski said. “It’s a tag-team effort between the school, the Fire Department and First Responders.”
The first groups to respond to the 911 call were the Upsala Fire Department and the First Responders, followed by the Morrison County Sheriff. A Minnesota State Patrol car also responded to the crash.
The driver of the crashed car was taken aside and questioned about the accident. He was given a breathalyzer test, which confirmed that he had been driving while impaired. He was placed under arrest and handcuffed.
Gold Cross Ambulance drivers arrived at the scene and immobilized the back seat passenger who had been walking around, and put her into the ambulance.
Meanwhile, the Fire Department was working to free the trapped back seat passenger, using a hydraulic cutter. The car was taken apart piece by piece. Due to the seriousness of the victim’s injuries, a helicopter from North Memorial Ambulance was called in.
After the living accident victims had been helped, a hearse from Miller-Carlin Funeral Home of Upsala was called to pick up the deceased victim. The black hearse arrived at a slow, somber speed after which men in dark suits wheeled a gurney over to the body, zipped it into a body bag, and loaded the gurney back into the hearse.
Once all of the accident victims were removed from the scene, and most of the emergency vehicles had left, participants in the drama spoke to the students.
Morrison County Chaplain Gregg Valentine explained to the students how important this was to everyone involved.
“We do this because we love you,” he said.
Sergeant Shawn Larsen, an Upsala High School graduate, reminded them that he had been in their shoes at one time.
“Driving while distracted can change your life in a moment,” he said to them. “Driving in a rural area with a speed limit of 55 miles per hour, if you text and look up — it’s too late and you’re involved in a crash.”
Students returned to the school building to hear a short presentation by Leslie McCoy-Olson, whose daughter, Upsala student Adrianne McCoy, died in a crash April 25, 2007. They walked into the auditorium past a display of burned items recovered from McCoy’s vehicle.
“She was on her way to school on a beautiful day, driving from Swanville to Upsala,” McCoy-Olson said. “All we know is, she wasn’t paying attention.”
McCoy was late to school, a young woman who had only been driving a very short time. She was in the oncoming lane when her car was struck by a pickup truck.
“There are so many things we’ll never know,” McCoy-Olson said. “But we do know she died instantly, as there was no smoke in her lungs.”
She shared her belief with the students that things happen for a reason, “But she didn’t need to die. You need to be paying attention, keeping your hands on the wheel. You need to be focused and aware of your surroundings.”
“Young drivers need to know what happens when a person drives irresponsibly,” Jelinski said. “Almost everyone who participated in this event donated their time. It was donated by the community because of the message; that’s how important the community believes this to be.”
Jelinski pointed out that the vehicles involved, along with fuel, were in-kind donations absorbed by their respective agencies.
“I can’t put a dollar amount on what it cost to fly that helicopter,” Jelinski said. “But North Memorial absorbs that because they know the importance of putting on the mock car crash.”
“Any type of distraction can alter the course of driving,” Larsen said. “A major accident is more likely to occur when one of those behaviors — like texting while driving — is taking place. Lives can be easily impacted by their decisions.”
“This had a tremendous impact on our students,” said Dean of Students Vern Capelle. “The personal aspects made it even more relevant to their lives.”
“We don’t want to see timeless memories erased because of the result of one bad decision,” Larsen said.