By Kim Walter
FRONT ROYAL - Sirens blared and lights flashed as local fire and rescue squads, along with law enforcement and state police, rushed to the scene of an automobile accident at Skyline High School on Thursday afternoon.
After the emergency responders arrived and got to work checking on victims and damage, the thump of helicopter wings could be heard closing in on the scene.
Students stood close by, watching the dramatics unfold.
Thankfully, it was all a set up.
Caitlin Dove, a 17-year-old junior, decided to stage an alcohol-related crash the day before Skyline's prom to get her peers thinking about making better choices before and after the highly anticipated dance.
Initially, Dove came up with the idea during the time she spent as a Girl Scout. In order to earn her Gold Star, the highest achievement possible, she needed to complete a community service or awareness related project.
Dove said she'd seen a few fake accident scenes before, and thought the visual impact would work well for her fellow students.
"We also lost two students due to car accidents last year," she said, frowning. "I don't think any of us want that to happen again, especially not after prom."
Thanks to a few family connections, Dove was able to get Warren County Fire and Rescue, the Sheriff's Office and Virginia State Police to participate. She was also able to get a MedEvac helicopter to stop in.
"It just adds to the severity of the situation," she said.
Dove set up a story line in which a few couples were on their way home from an after-prom party. The driver was intoxicated and the students' vehicle hit a vehicle driven by a sober woman who was played by Dove's aunt.
One student was taken away in an ambulance and "died." The woman also "passed away" after being taken up in the helicopter.
The driver of the vehicle, a teenage boy, was quickly taken aside by State Trooper Pam Neff, who began sobriety tests on him. After failing them, the student was handcuffed and escorted to the officer's car.
Later, Neff explained what would've happened to the student had the situation been real.
"Well, two people died, so he could get up to 20 years for each person," she said. "And he was underage, so that's another issue."
Neff said that someone younger than 21 is above the legal limit if their alcohol percentage is .02 or higher.
"That's just a few sips of beer for you kids," she said as the crowd of students listened from a hill. "Do you want to spend prom night with me, in jail? ... I didn't think so."
She said the alcohol-related accidents and fatalities are some of the worst parts of her job, which she's had for nine years.
"I do love what I do," she said. "But I don't want to be that officer that walks up to a home at 2 a.m. and has to explain to parents that their child either killed someone, or was killed by someone, and all because of a couple hours of fun."
Over the years, Neff has seen a number of similar accidents, and knows that things like the staged crash do happen on prom night. Even after all the education, which she does at some schools, she can't get over the fact that some students will still want to drink and drive.
"They don't think it will happen to them," she said. "But let me tell you, they're the ones breaking down and crying once they realize what a silly decision they've made by getting behind the wheel of a car when they shouldn't have."
She said she hopes the fake crash will have some kind of impact on the students, and said even if it saves one life, it was worth it.
"Prom is supposed to be this great, fun event, so close to graduation," she said. "But come Monday, when a student, a friend, is gone because of drinking ... it changes everything."
Dove also said she hopes the impact will last, and invited students to sign a prom pledge, stating they would attend and leave prom sober. She admitted it is hard getting the message across to high-schoolers.
"I just hope this opens their eyes," she said. "I hope that this scene doesn't actually happen on Friday night."
Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or email@example.com