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Ghost Out event drives home the dangers of drunk driving

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RONAN — On Wednesday, April 27, two mangled cars sat in the Ronan High School parking lot as a grisly reminder of the dangers of drinking and driving. 

A “Ghost Out” event is held every four years at Ronan High School, always before prom. During the event, a severe car accident is staged to show students the harsh reality that can come with drinking and driving. The statistics are integrated into the school day as well, with several students selected as “ghosts” to wear black and serve as a representation of the number of people killed in drunk driving accidents. 

This year’s display began with one of their teachers, Phoebe Norling, who had just returned from maternity leave, acting as the corpse lying beside the shattered cars. Inside the sedan, which had collided head on with the pickup on scene, one of the student actors inside screamed for her friend to wake up.

The morbid display went on for several minutes as students filtered out of the school to watch, giving just a taste of how long the wait can feel to those involved in a wreck before emergency responders can get on scene. Then, the sirens came filing in. Police, ambulances, and fire fighters came onto the scene. Mrs. Norling was covered with a sheet. 

The arduous, careful process of extracting injured individuals from a car was demonstrated. Though every responder worked professionally and efficiently, students witnessed firsthand how the process of getting to entrapped crash survivors takes time. The car’s tires were deflated to prevent it from moving, the windshield was broken with an axe, and the jaws of life painstakingly peeled back the roof of the car. One by one, the kids were carefully removed from the car and loaded up onto gurneys, into ambulances, and in one case air lifted away. 

The last to be removed from the scene was Mrs. Norling, zipped up in a body bag by Sheriff Don Bell and driven away in a white hearse.

Throughout the display, the students watched in silence. Some made jokes through their discomfort, but most were attentive and somber at the scene. One young man admitted to his friends that he had cried when his classmate screamed for help from within the crumpled car. 

At the assembly that followed, kids were shown an “in memoriam” slideshow of all the “ghost” students, driving home the statistics of how many are lost. 

The memorial for Mrs. Norling was held next. Personal photos of her with her family were projected on stage as one of her coworkers read the eulogy, listing all the loved ones the young teacher would be leaving behind if the accident had been real, including her two-year-old and three-month-old sons. 

When Principal Kevin Kenelty stepped on stage, he drove the severity home, sharing that in his 27 years of teaching, he has had to go to 30 funerals for drinking and driving. A former softball coach, he shared the story of one of his students who had died in a car crash just before joining the military. Her friend, who had been in the car with her, had been trapped for two days before she was found. 

“Please, be safe,” he asked of his students. “And that goes for texting and driving too.”

Participants Heather and Teagan Gray spoke afterwards about the experience. Heather, a teacher for around 20 years, has been involved in five of these events, including as a wreck participant with Teagan and some of their family and friends. 

“I’ll never forget it,” Teagan said of the experience. Some of the volunteer firefighters who had helped load her onto the gurney were her own classmates, 18-year-olds like herself. 

While the lesson is important, Heather said the school always make the effort to reach out to students who might find the display hits a little too close to home. “They can call out, or stay in the library,” Heather explained. “To a lot of students, this is their comfort zone, so we always make that available.” 

They both spoke to how much the community comes together to make the event happen and hit home. 

Doing the event every few years, Bell explained, let the emergency responders put together a better example of a real scenario. The responders aren’t acting when they show up. They’re doing their jobs the way they would if it were real. 

All branches of emergency response in the area come together for the simulation, from state to tribe. The Kalispell air lift even donates their time each event because they believe in the importance of the message, Heather said, despite how expensive it is for them to participate with their helicopters. 

The Ghost Out also has an impact on the first responders who participate, Kenelty said. They are the people who have to deal with this in reality, and they’re impacted just as the students and staff are. 

Ultimately, Kenelty keeps the event going every four years in the hope that it manages to save some lives. “I don’t want to go to any more funerals,” he said.

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