Erin Wert wore a Churchill class of ‘09 shirt when she told an auditorium full of her Winston Churchill High School classmates about July 14, 1998. That was the day her father John Francis Wert was killed in a car accident caused by a teenage driver who was traveling 68 mph on the East West Highway in Chevy Chase. Erin was 7 years old.
On that day, she was waiting for her father to bring her to an Orioles game. At her father’s funeral days later, she said, “I realized that my Daddy wasn’t coming home.”
In a way, Erin said, she feels blessed — her sisters were 4 and 3 years old when their father died, too young to remember him. “I am still able to close my eyes and remember his laugh,” Erin said.
But there have been countless times Erin was reminded of the loss of her father. “My Dad was not there when I broke my wrist; my Dad was not there when I was in the second-grade play,” Wert said. She knows she won’t have him there when she graduates from Churchill, or when she walks down the aisle to get married. “The reason I don’t have him is that a [teenager] made the choice to drive recklessly.”
ERIN WERT spoke to Churchill students on Friday, Nov. 4, the culmination of “Every 15 Minutes.” So named because a person in the United States dies as the result of a alcohol-related car collision every 15 minutes, the two-day program was designed to educate Churchill students on the consequences of destructive decisions, especially drunk driving.
Churchill hosted the event on its Homecoming weekend, nearly a year after the death of Sarkis “Sako” Nazarian, then a Churchill junior, in an alcohol-related car collision. Sako’s brother Chris Nazarian also spoke to Churchill students on Friday.
“No new laws are going to change what you guys do,” Chris Nazarian said. “I did all of it; I’m not proud of it.” But he pleaded with students to think about the consequences of their decisions, and those of their friends. “Instead of worrying just about yourself … maybe you should stop [a drunk friend] from driving.”
But Chris Nazarian knows why Sako’s friends may have done otherwise. “Sako had this air about him that he was in total control … even after he had a couple of drinks,” Chris Nazarian said.
Chris believes Sako made a deal with God in the moments before the crash that his two friends who were passengers in the car be spared. “Take me; don’t take them.” Sako’s friends both survived the accident with minor injuries.
FRIDAY’S SPEAKERS also included U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and County Councilmember Tom Perez (D-5). Students also watched a video produced overnight portraying the events at school on Thursday, when a student died symbolically every 15 minutes.
Throughout the school day, a student dressed as the Grim Reaper came to a class and removed a student, and a uniformed Montgomery County police officer read an obituary the student’s parents had written.
Senior Mike Biama was one of four Grim Reapers. One student laughed at the routine, Biama said, but stopped when Biama stared him in the face. Montgomery County police gave the event more credibility, Biama said. “When a police officer walks in the room, nobody is laughing.”
Each student who died returned to classes wearing all-black clothing and “death” makeup. By the end of the day, there were 19 “Living Dead” students at Churchill, and they did not speak, but were silent reminders of the statistics.
After each student “died,” a parent volunteer taped the student’s obituary and picture to the windows at Churchill’s front office.
In the afternoon, a public address announcement at school was interrupted by a simulated 911 call. Hundreds of students came to Churchill’s parking lot to see a graphic reenactment of a car crash, in which the victims were Churchill students.
“It’s effective, definitely, seeing them put the students in the ambulance and having it drive off,” said Churchill senior Ben Samit.
Not all Churchill students were as affected.
Junior Michael Butvinik saw students who laughed the event off.
“I’m conflicted, because I think it is a truly amazing presentation. But at the same time, I feel that it isn’t getting through to about half the student body — especially those who need to hear it,” Butvinik said. “I wanted to scream at them, because it’s something that could happen to someone you know.”
THE SARCASTIC ELEMENT almost completely disappeared from Churchill’s auditorium on Friday morning, when Wert and Nazarian spoke.
After all the speakers, a video presentation showed the names and faces of the 18 Washington, D.C., area students who died in car accidents during a three-month stretch late last year. The montage concluded with the smiling face of Sako, who would have been a senior at Churchill this year.
When Churchill Principal Joan Benz made her opening remarks Friday morning, there was a murmur of conversation in the auditorium typical of a large high school crowd. When Benz walked onstage for the closing remarks, there was no sound in the auditorium except her footsteps.
Steve Albert played the “Drunk Driver” in Thursday’s simulated crash. While Thursday’s crash didn’t reach everybody, Albert felt Friday’s presentation did. “Everybody paid attention the entire time,” Albert said. “Walking out, a lot of the girls had red eyes, and a lot of the guys had blank faces and didn’t know what to say.”
“I thought the program was great overall. I think the assembly was much more powerful … on some level, bringing Sako back into the picture,” said Jeremy Sherer, Churchill’s senior class president. “I think that the program this weekend will keep some of these kids safe.”
SPEAKERS AT 'EVERY 15 MINUTES'
* U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) discussed some of the “famous last words of those who are no longer with us” — rationalizations some people use before they drive drunk. “It’s not just your life you’re taking into your hands, literally,” Van Hollen said.
* County Councilmember Tom Perez (D-5) urged students not to think they were indestructible or invincible. A close friend of Perez’s died 22 years ago in a car accident. Perez asked Churchill students to reflect on their goals and remember the consequences of their decisions. “I want to read your obituary when you’re 102, not when you’re 18,” Perez said.
* Kathy Fowler, Medical Reporter, for WJLA/7, shared the story of a car crash she survived in her Ohio hometown when she was 18. The driver was not drunk, but was driving more than 80 mph when he lost control of the car. Fowler’s twin sister was also in the car, and also survived, but two friends were killed. “I never realized that when something like that did happent, it was something that … would change the lives of those around us forever,” said Fowler, describing the scarring impact the accident had on those in the car who survived, and the families of those who died. “It’s not just about you. Just think of all the people that this will impact forever.”
* Joan Benz is in her ninth year as Churchill’s principal. For her first seven years there, no Churchill student died. “Luck was with us,” Benz said. But last year, Sarkis “Sako” Nazarian died in November, and senior Alex Chaufournier died in May. “It was the worst of times; it was the very worst,” Benz said. “Those young men are gone, and there are great holes, great voids where they should have been filling for us.” Benz knew that the presentation was depressing for many students, and opened old wounds during Homecoming weekend, but she hoped it would make students remember those who died. “I expect you to take care of each other,” Benz said. “Your life is before you, and you have the right to make it great. … My wish is that we have a great Homecoming; an event-free Homecoming.”
'EVERY 15 MINUTES'
“Every 15 Minutes” is a two-day program focusing on high school students, which challenges them to think about drinking, personal safety, driving habits and the responsibility of making mature decisions when people’s lives are involved. The program’s name was conceived from the fact that every 15 minutes, someone in the United States dies in an alcohol-related traffic collision. With this program, we hope to educate our students to the irrevocable consequences of their actions, and get them to think twice before making a destructive decision.
'LIFE IS PRECIOUS'
James Collins didn’t want Churchill’s varsity football players to forget what they saw Friday morning.
By design, Churchill’s “Every 15 Minutes” presentation took place on the school’s Homecoming weekend. Friday was a blend of the somber and the festive for Churchill students, who walked to the auditorium presentation through halls decorated in bright blue and green for Spirit Week.
Hours after the “Every 15 Minutes” presentation that left many students stunned and silenced, Churchill’s varsity football team hosted Whitman for the Homecoming game.
“I tried to tie in what they were doing today as best I could,” Collins said. “I geared my pregame speech on what we’d seen and what we’d talked about. … I talked to the kids and said, ‘If you really read the underlying message of that presentation, it’s that life is precious, and you can’t make decisions to put yourself in harm’s way.’”
If the players felt emotional, they were in the right place, Collins said. “Life is precious, and you have to live every minute of it to the utmost, its fullest, and you have to do it in a smart way. And then I told the team, ‘This is the best place to feel a lot of emotion.’”
Churchill won the football game 14-12, and Collins also reminded his players about their responsibilities as student-athletes, especially during Homecoming weekend.
Collins asked his players how they felt after the come-from-behind victory. The players roared their response, and Collins told them, “There’s no drink; there’s no drug; there’s nothing you can do tomorrow night that’s going to feel better than you feel right now. But what will happen is if you do that drink, if you do that drug, or whatever, you won’t get to come back and feel this again.”
Glenn Turner, Churchill senior
Grim Reaper, Every 15 Minutes
“At first the class kind of laughed, but then when the officer read the obituary, they quieted down and turned kind of sad.”
Mike Biama, Churchill senior
Grim Reaper, Every 15 minutes
“My first class was really good; they didn’t know what to expect. You don’t want people cheering you on, or saying, ‘You look so cool.’ In my third class, a kid snickered, and I stared him right in the face. He stopped right away. When a police officer walks in the room, nobody is laughing.”
Paula Marincola, Churchill senior
Cadet, Cabin John Park Volunteer Fire Department
“I’m used to these kinds of drills, but it was so cool how they did the 911 call during our P.A. announcements. That was a good touch, because that’s pretty much how a real 911 call goes.”
Kevin Birns, Churchill junior
“I’m amazed how they did it. My brother was friends with Sako’s brother. It’s shocking how people can just drive drunk after that.”
Bobby Manoocheri, Churchill junior
“I thought it looked very real, and it was really emotional. I know the kid that got arrested. It’s emotional to see one of your friends get arrested.”
Chau Pham, Churchill junior
“I think a lot of people got pretty serious and into it, because everyone got into their roles perfectly. You actually saw the process of them taking the car apart and actually saw the process of the alcohol test. The guy that got arrested, he’s kind of a funny guy, but [seeing him get arrested] makes you look at it in a whole different way.”
Sophie Wereley, Churchill freshman
“Everybody was spazzing out. We thought the [911 call] was real. I saw the Grim Reaper walking around, and it’s kind of freaky.”
Jaclyn Gurwitz, Churchill sophomore
“I knew it was going to happen, but it was the fact that one of my friends was lying out by the car … and could do something so stupid. I was in tears. It was so hard to comprehend because I would never do anything like that and none of my friends would, but someone you know could be a casualty like that — she got punished for someone’s drunk driving.”
Michael Butvinik, Churchill junior
“I’m conflicted, because I think it is a truly amazing presentation. But at the same time, I feel that it isn’t getting through to about half the student body — especially those who need to hear it. … I wanted to scream at them, because it’s something that could happen to someone you know.”
Michael Brick, Churchill sophomore
“It’s not affecting the people that it’s supposed to affect. … I was reading the obituaries, and one kid said, ‘If that girl did die, I wouldn’t care at all.’ Even if you feel you don’t care, there are tons of kids that have been affected and tons of parents who are affected. … I think all the people who would drink and drive have never seen a drunk driving accident.”
Officer Maureen Connelly and Officer Selma Daniels, Montgomery County Police Department
“Initially when the Grim Reaper comes in the kids get all giggly. [When police officers walk in] it tends to make it feel more real. It should make a lot of kids stop and think. … It kind of makes you appreciate what you’ve got.”
Ellen Burtz and Marla Reich, parent co-chairs, “Every 15 Minutes”
Burtz: “I was really moved by the re-enactment; I didn’t think I would be. I think there were very varied reactions. Some thought that it was a joke, but the faces I saw on some kids were very intense and shocked.”
Reich: “I’m relieved that it went so well [judging from] the reaction from the kids. They see their friends and they have tears in their eyes. They’re really getting the message.”
Officer P.J. Gregory, Montgomery County Police Department
“Reading the obituaries, you find out a lot about the kids, a lot about their personalities. Everything they aspired to do is gone. I’ve got three kids of my own, and the day’s going to come when they’re going to be driving. I can take this experience and help them learn from it. … This happens all the time — hopefully the kids will learn from it.”
Steven Albert, Churchill senior, “Drunk Driver” in crash simulation
“[During Friday’s assembly] everybody paid attention the entire time. Walking out, a lot of the girls had red eyes, and a lot of the guys had blank faces and didn’t know what to say.”
Sara Butters, Churchill senior, “Crash Victim”
“It will definitely make people think more. It won’t make people stop drinking [but] it will make people think not to drive if they do drink.”
Stephanie Faigen, Churchill junior, “Crash Victim”
“Until I watched the video, I didn’t know how real it looked. … It made me picture what it would be like to have one of my close friends in an accident. It made me sick to my stomach.”
Michael Spaeth, Churchill sophomore, “Crash Victim”
“A lot of people were crying.”
Mitchell Black, Churchill sophomore, “Crash Victim”
“If there was any part that got to everyone, it was the I Drive Smart video. They should make that a TV commercial. … Show it every 15 minutes. … There are some people that will think that it’s a joke forever, but there are some that it will stick with.”
Caroline Vincent, Churchill junior, “Crash Victim”
“There were some people that might think of it as a joke, but some people were really affected. [During the simulated crash] I could see my best friend; I was staring right at her. It was so powerful to see it.”