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Ghastly Ghost Out haunts kids to drive sober

RONAN — A gruesome scene horrified the Ronan student body into an eerie silence on Thursday. A body on the ground, teenagers mangled and unconscious, slumped over steering wheels and seats, and the Grim Reaper lurking about, taking his time to select his two victims. The drunk driver, dazed but unharmed, stumbled out of his car to surmise the damages caused by his reckless behavior.

The scene acted out by Ronan High School students and local law enforcement and emergency response agencies was a haunting finale of the day’s Ghost Out event. 

In an attempt to warn kids about the dangers of drinking and driving, school administrators, the Ronan High School Student Council and emergency response agencies worked together to stage Ghost Out, which culminated with a lifelike replica of a two-vehicle wreck.

Ghost Out lets students experience first hand the consequences of drinking and driving. The lesson is designed to inspire the students to think twice before they get behind the wheel after a few beers. 

“I was crying while I was in there,” Ronan senior Abby Luke said. Luke, whose face was made up to appear bloodied and mangled, was one of the actresses in a wrecked vehicle.

“Today it was hard to watch your friends and classmates ‘die,’” Luke added.

Throughout the school day, 19 students were removed from class to have their makeup done in a horrific fashion, only to return to class “dead” and a silent reminder of the fatal results of drinking and driving. 

At the end of the day, the school body joined Deputy Jay Gillhouse and the “dead” 19 for a school assembly in the gymnasium. 

The Ronan Volunteer Fire Fighters were also in attendance as well as the Montana Highway Patrol, Ronan Police Department, the Ronan ambulance, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal police, and the Lake County Sheriff’s Department. 

With spotlights on the mangled faces of students who had “died,” Gillhouse and other local law officers addressed the student body about the dangers of drinking and driving. The Grim Reaper also made his ominous presence known, hovering over the bloodied students and staring grimly into the audience.

“I hope you can take something away from this,” Gillhouse said. “It’s all about the decisions you make.”

Following the assembly, the student body was ushered out to the parking lot where they had front row seats to the scene of the crash. The speakers vibrated with the unsteady voice of a panicked female calling 9-1-1 and describing a real head-on collision near Ninepipe. 

The crowd hushed and was allowed a few moments of silence to observe their friends and classmates in the crash scene, which was created by the Ronan Fire Department, before the emergency crews flooded the area in an attempt to salvage lives and tend to wounds.

After the emergency medical technicians assessed the injuries of each passenger, the Ronan Fire Department proceeded to extricate the students out of the vehicles. The fire department smashed in each window and placed cinder blocks under the wheels, stabilizing the vehicles before using the Jaws of Life to rip the roofs off the vehicles. They were then able to remove the teenagers and place them into the ambulance and the helicopter.

Meanwhile, the drunk driver was questioned by the Montana Highway Patrol and placed under arrest. 

Though some of the students joked and socialized with each other, the near-real scenario playing out before them was soaked up by most of the observers.

“If we reached a few of them, and they realize this is something they shouldn’t be doing, then I guess it’s successful,” Ronan Fire Chief Mark Clary said. 

Clary estimated that the Ronan Fire Department responds to 50 wrecks caused by drunk drivers each year. 

For many of the Ronan High School students, the scene was a graphic reminder of the consequences of drinking and driving. Tearfully, those students clung to each other as a scream was emitted from a girl laying motionless in an ambulance and others were pronounced dead at the scene.

But for some students, humor and laughter was the only way to deal with the tragedy. 

“It really hits them hard,” Luke said of the majority of students. “Then there are others. I am really disappointed because they didn’t take it seriously.”

Gillhouse responded that every student reacts differently to Ghost Out and sometimes it’s difficult to judge the affect it takes on a student by their apparent reaction.

“You never know how it’s going to affect kids,” Gillhouse explained. “I was pleased with the overall reaction of the students. I think they learned something,” he added.

Gillhouse doesn’t want the message of the fatal consequences of drinking and driving to stay within the confines of the school building. He hopes the message reaches to the community as well.

“We are aiming (Ghost Out) at schools,” Gillhouse said. “(But) I want the word to get out. Adults would have a lot to gain from that as well.”

Jill Campbell shares that sentiment.

Campbell is the Lake County Task Force coordinator and was present at the Ghost Out on Thursday. The consequences of drinking and driving resonate painfully clear to her.

Fourteen years ago Campbell’s daughter was killed in a wreck caused a drunk driver. The driver, a doctor headed home to Kalispell, had a BAC of twice the legal limit, Campbell said. He had no recollection of driving through Polson before hitting the car with Campbell's daughter and a friend. 

“If an ER doctor can think that he is sober enough to drive,” Campbell said. “It just baffles me.”

Ghost Out happens every four years so every high school student can fully comprehend the fatal consequences of drinking and driving and also understand the legality of it. 

“My focus at the assembly was that this is a re-enactment of something that is real,” Gillhouse said. “The other focus is not only can this happen, but it’s against the law. If you get pulled over and get an DUI, it’s because we are out there trying to prevent these kinds of things from happening.”


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