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Teaching a tough message
Ghost Out event brings harsh realities to life
Forsyth County Firefighters use extrication equipment to remove the door from a vehicle at the annual Ghost Out event. - photo by Alexander Popp

The first thing one hears: screaming, crying and a frantic 911 call.

Two vehicles sit nose to nose, smashed together head on, with windshields cracked and hoods buckled into unrecognizable shapes. Through spider webs of broken glass, one can clearly make out the shape of deployed airbags. All the while, hundreds of men, women and children witness the scene in near complete silence from metal bleachers, just feet away.

The wreck isn’t real. Even though its events play out like thousands of other wrecks that happen every day, this one is a production, put on by Forsyth County High School students, the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office and the Forsyth County Fire Department, aimed at visually driving home the point that driving impaired or distracted can turn fatal in a matter of seconds.

In minutes, the crowd can hear sirens. First the sleek black patrol cars park at the scene, deputies springing into action surrounding the vehicles and assessing the scene — then, the blaring horns of fire engines and ambulances crest a rise just seconds before the vehicles pull in and the chaos of a full on, serious vehicle collision extrication and investigation kicks into motion.

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Forsyth County fire and emergency personnel lift a body onto a stretcher at the annual Ghost Out event. - photo by Alexander Popp

Forsyth County Sheriff Ron Freeman said the staged wreck called Ghost Out, which takes place each year in the spring near the beginning of prom season, aims to reinforce a message to teens and challenge parents to have hard conversations with their kids about alcohol and drugs.

“Unfortunately, again and again, sometimes, some kids end up making bad decisions when it comes to drinking and driving, and get behind the wheel when they are under the influence. We want to do everything we can to give these kids just that reminder of how dangerous it is to get behind the wheel if you are impaired,” Freeman said. 

As the reenactment progressed, viewers saw the consequences of the accident unfold, as the driver of one vehicle was breathalyzed and taken away in handcuffs, and a crowd of Forsyth County Fire Department personnel used extrication equipment to free passengers trapped in a vehicle.

“This is a full scale reenactment,” Freeman said, “You see how big this is to reenact what exactly could happen if you chose to get behind the wheel impaired. You just hope and pray that we get through a little bit to some of these kids and help them make a better decision … We are here because we want to protect our kids.”

Freeman said the school system and the sheriff’s office both offer training and information on the dangers of impaired driving throughout the year, but that a visual, emotional display like Ghost Out brings the message home in a way that facts and statistics can’t.

“If you are a young kid, a student, or a high school student, and you are seeing the full-scale reenactment of a fatality accident … yeah, I think its way more impactful than sitting in a classroom,” he said.   

More than a dozen local students participated in the reenactment, serving roles as victims, witnesses and others at the scene. One student, Marcello Valencia, played the role of impaired driver at fault in the wreck. During the reenactment, Valencia paced the scene shaking and crying, and was eventually arrested by a deputy for driving under the influence.

“You don’t realize how emotional and how shocking it is until you are there,” Valencia said.

Added Valencia: “People underestimate how much damage one stupid drink can cause.  And it tears literal families apart, and you will never be the same if you do something like this. It’s just eye-opening.”

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Marcello Valencia, a junior at South Forsyth High School, plays the part of an impaired driver at fault during the wreck reenactment at Ghost Out. - photo by Alexander Popp

Valencia said that being a part of the event shut down any ideas he had about wanting to drink in college. He said that the price was too high.

“I’ll be honest, in college I was thinking that I would probably do stuff there, but now I just don’t even want to. There’s no reason to take the chance on this stuff …”

Division Chief Jason Shivers, spokesman for the Forsyth County Fire Department, said that this mentality is exactly what organizers of the event try to reinforce, showing them that drinking and driving has deadly consequences, and is not worth dying for.

“It is meant to drive home a strong, emotional experience to teen drivers … It’s meant to be impactful. It’s meant to be emotional. It’s meant to be tough on the senses — to make them appreciate the dangers that they are about to walk into,” Shivers said.

Shivers said that in the past, Ghost Out has moved around the different high schools in Forsyth County, but this year the event was open to the public to reach a wider audience.

“The advantage of this venue at the fairgrounds on a weekend is that the audience was able to be filled with a lot of parents; it wasn’t just the high school students at a high school,” he said.

He said that having parents attend the event, and having them witness that same deadly reality with their kids, will help reinforce the ideas of driving safely.

“Strong education, strong reinforcement of wise decisions happens at home and we need parents to be on board with that, teaching that message to young drivers,” Shivers said.

Added Shivers: “There is no substitute for family conversation. We want our parents to have meaningful, deep conversations and bring that emotion out of their children. Explain to them the dangers … have those conversations now, so that you don’t have to have them as a result of someone’s tragic accident.”