In Portsmouth: ‘This actually happens in real life’

As a deterrent to impaired driving, PHS seniors witness what a DUI crash scene looks like

By Jim McGaw
Posted 5/24/22

PORTSMOUTH — Portsmouth 911 — what’s your emergency?

Hi, there’s an accident at the high school. It looks like there’s two cars. I can’t see too well; I was …

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In Portsmouth: ‘This actually happens in real life’

As a deterrent to impaired driving, PHS seniors witness what a DUI crash scene looks like


PORTSMOUTH — Portsmouth 911 — what’s your emergency?

Hi, there’s an accident at the high school. It looks like there’s two cars. I can’t see too well; I was right behind them.

Do you know if anyone was injured?

I don’t know. I think so. It looks like someone is stuck in one of the cars.

OK, we’ll have officers and an ambulance coming. Are the cars still on the roadway?

Yeah, they’re smashed up really bad. There was a car coming straight at us in the opposite direction. They weren’t even in their lane.

OK, you stay there in case the officers want to speak to you.

OK, hurry up; these people need help.

The sound of sirens coming from Turnpike Avenue get louder as police cruisers descend on the campus, followed by a fire truck and ambulance. 

Four teenagers stumble out of two cars that had been involved in a head-on collision. Their faces and clothes are bloodied, and they try to make sense of what just happened. One girl’s lifeless body lays atop a roof after being ejected through a windshield. Another girl is trapped in the back seat of the car.

One of the drivers is accosted by the others amid the broken glass and cans of Heineken. There’s a lot of shouting and anger, as first responders try to sort out what happened.

What is wrong with you? Why would you do that?

I didn’t do any of that!

Yes you did — she can’t even breathe!

You can smell it on his breath!

He killed my friend!

They’re not breathing — I don’t know what’s wrong with them!

The girl on the hood is checked for vitals by Officer Maddie Pirri and is pronounced dead. Firefighters have to use the Jaws of Life to extract another girl from the back seat. She’s alive but unconscious, and is rushed to a hospital.

Officer James Thulier questions and gives the impaired driver a field sobriety test, which he fails. He is arrested on the spot, as classmates berate him.

A very real problem

What played out in dramatic fashion last Thursday was fortunately only a demonstration for PHS seniors, but first responders know it’s an all-too-common consequence of impaired driving.

“It’s one of the worst calls you can possibly respond to,” said Officer Pirri, who’s also a student resource officer for the school district. “For me, it’s really upsetting because you have to go make a death notification to a family member. We want the kids to see how hard it is to lose a loved one.”

That’s why such an elaborate staging was used, rather than a simple lecture.

“We were hoping to impact the kids as much as we could,” she said. “By seeing it up close, this is the most realistic way you’re going to get to them. We want them to see the dangers and how this actually happens in real life.”

The way Thursday’s scenario played out is all too common in real life, she said. 

“This is a very high-possibility DUI accident resulting in death,” said Officer Pirri. “Really, we wanted to reach out and make sure they see the dangers and we teach them it’s very dangerous to get behind the wheel when they’re intoxicated or impaired — there could also be marijuana in their system. We want them to make the right choice and call somebody else to drive them, or their parents.”

The timing of the program was no accident, as one of the most important nights for juniors and seniors is fast approaching. 

“Prom is coming up for junior and senior class, so that’s what we wanted to get through to the kids,” she said.

Thursday’s mock DUI scene was held in conjunction with the Portsmouth Police and Fire departments, the Portsmouth Prevention Coalition, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and Portsmouth High School (Principal Joseph Amaral and Assistant Principal Collin Grimsey facilitated the event). R&A Towing provided the wrecked vehicles.

Volunteering to make a point

Although the six students involved demonstrated some fine acting chops, they were not members of the Drama Club.

“We just did it for fun, and to spread awareness to people who want to get drunk and drive at the same time,” said sophomore Renesha Duncan, who played the dead girl on the hood. “That’s not the right choice. You may think you’re going out and doing something so cool. No — you’re just doing it on a whim and being an idiot and killing people in the process.”

Duncan had the unenviable task of laying motionless on a car hood for more than 20 minutes on a chilly and drizzly day. She almost laughed when she heard a friend in the crowd yell out her name, but retained her professional composure.

“But I fought it off,” she said.

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