Mock car crash teaches AAHS students the real consequences of distracted driving w/video

Car crashes are the second leading cause of deaths for Minnesota teens (ages 16 - 19), according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.

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The scene of the mock crash on Tuesday, May 2, shows a two-vehicle accident involving five students. One was ejected from the vehicle and was declared dead at the scene.
Thalen Zimmerman / Alexandria Echo Press

ALEXANDRIA — On Tuesday, May 2, at around 10:20 a.m., a call came in from the Douglas County dispatch about a multiple-injury two-car collision in the north parking lot of the Alexandria Area High School involving four AAHS students.

The call said one was ejected and not moving while two others were pinned and unconscious.

"Extraction will be needed," said the dispatcher.

Within minutes, the Alexandria Police Department arrived on the scene to assess the students. The one who was ejected was declared dead. Shortly after, North Memorial Ambulance, the Alexandria Fire Department and deputies from the Douglas County Sheriff's Office arrived on the scene to begin life-saving measures.

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One of Alexandria Police Department's School Resource Officers, Brandon Plumski, arrives at the mock crash scene to assess the drivers.
Thalen Zimmerman / Alexandria Echo Press

After extraction, one was sent to the hospital in an ambulance, another by the Life Link III helicopter. One was arrested for distracted driving and the deceased was taken away by Anderson's Funeral Home.


This was a simulated scenario witnessed by dozens of AAHS sophomore and junior students as part of the Douglas County TZD Safe Communities Coalition's presentation of a teen traffic crash caused by distractions and the consequences of not wearing seat belts.

The students in attendance heard cries of plea from the "survivors" of the mock car crash and watched as emergency responders simulated their training.

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AAHS students watch an Alexandria firefighter check on fellow students acting as victims during the mock car crash on Tuesday, May 2.
Thalen Zimmerman / Alexandria Echo Press

They saw their fellow classmates — Selby Olson, junior, Maddi Buysse, junior and Katie Hanson, senior — doctored in fake blood and make-up that resembled severe injuries. They watched as students were extracted from the vehicles and then sent off for emergency treatment while Jordan Nicholson, senior, acted lifeless, covered by a blanket. Then they saw Samantha Gerdes, senior, being questioned by APD School Resource Officer, Alex Swanson, and then arrested for causing the accident due to the distraction of her cell phone.

Along with TZD and the emergency responders, the event was made possible by Horizon Public Health, Alomere Heath, Budget Auto (who supplied the vehicles), and Alexandria Area High School staff and students.

Before the event, students watched a pre-crash video created by the student mock crash victims in the Performing Arts Center.

Afterward, the students went back to the Performing Arts Center to hear from the mock crash victims about how their lives would be forever changed because of the crash.

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Alexandria Area High School students watch as Douglas County and Alexandria emergency responders perform a mock car crash to show the dangers and consequences of distracted driving and being unbelted in a vehicle.
Thalen Zimmerman / Alexandria Echo Press

Hanson told her fellow classmates that because of the accident, she won't be able to attend the University of North Dakota in the fall because of her injuries. That she will have to undergo a long recovery process. That she will miss her best friend who was arrested for distracted driving and her boyfriend who died at the scene.

"I don't have anyone to help me go through this recovery. The PTSD makes it hard to even talk about this to my family," said Hanson.


Gerdes, the one who was arrested during the mock crash, told the students that she will spend some time in jail and will not be able to continue her education at Alexandria Technical and Community College as she had planned. She then explained how hard it will be to get a job when she eventually does get out of jail because of her criminal record.

"I have to spend every day thinking about the crash and grieving the death of one of my friends and how it will also affect my best friend. I also get to think about what would have happened if I wasn't on my phone," Gerdes said.

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Selby Olson, an AAHS junior, is placed on a stretcher during the mock car crash on Tuesday, May 2.
Thalen Zimmerman / Alexandria Echo Press

Buysse said that she should be starting her senior year in the fall but won't be able to because of multiple surgeries needed to reconstruct her face.

"If I would have been wearing a seatbelt, I would not be having all of these surgeries," she said, adding that because of other injuries, she will not be able to continue playing volleyball. "I not only have to deal with my low self-esteem, I also have to deal with knowing my friend is in critical condition."

Olson said that her last year of high school with her friends will no longer be possible because of the traumatic brain injury she suffered as a result of the mock car crash.

"I will have a really hard time talking... I will have a lot of trouble learning in school and really doing anything at all," Olson said. "In the future, I will never be able to fulfill my dream of going pre-med and becoming a doctor."

Scott Johnson, manager for North Memorial Ambulance in Alexandria, then introduced each representative from participating agencies to talk about their role in responding to a crash and how it affects them and the community.

"These people are up here 'cause we care about you... You might not know them personally but that doesn't mean that we don't care," Johnson said.


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APD School Resource Officer for AAHS, Alex Swanson, places Samantha Gerdes in custody for distracted driving which led to the mock car crash.
Thalen Zimmerman / Alexandria Echo Press

Officer Swanson informed the students that he has responded to many real fatal accidents in his career.

"Now that I have my own kids at home, going to a fatal involving juveniles is extra difficult for me. It impacts all of these first responders that are here — that now have to go home to their families and deal with that trauma," Swanson said.

AFD Chief Jeff Karrow added that there are 52 children among all the firefighters in the department that they have to go home to. He explained that the effect is like a ripple caused by a pebble tossed into a puddle.

Lori Rosch, emergency room director at Alomere Health, spoke next.

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After being intubated, Samanatha Gerdes is hauled away by members of North Memorial Ambulance and the Alexandria Fire Department.
Thalen Zimmerman / Alexandria Echo Press

"What you weren't able to see during this event is what takes place at the hospital... Based on the number of victims, we may call in staff from home... We may have to stop surgeries going on in the hospital to open up the operating room for victims," Rosch said. "There are images in my head of all the victims that I have helped. That I have personally been at the bedside and taken care of. This stays with us forever."

Tina Bakeberg of North Ambulance held back tears as she told the students how she has had to pull children out of car wrecks throughout her years with the ambulance service. She said it affects her personally because her children are now in high school and driving.

"People always want to know, 'What is the worst thing you've seen?,'" Bakeberg said."It's the kids. That is the one thing we will always remember."

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Life Link III prepares to land for the emergency transportation of Samantha Gerdes after the mock car crash.
Thalen Zimmerman / Alexandria Echo Press

Douglas County Dispatcher Nick Rogers said that the dispatchers are the first to hear the screams and the cries of those in need of help.


"While we don't get to see what happens, we leave it to our imaginations. Sometimes that can be worse," he said. "Do us a favor and just pay attention."

Alan Iverson of Anderson's Funeral Home spoke next. He told the students how members of the funeral home work directly with the families after the death of a loved one.

"It hurts and it affects us. Emotionally, we are exhausted and this happens any hour of the day. Even on weekends and holidays. There is no time off," Iverson said. He added that he hopes the students take the lessons from the mock car crash seriously.

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Representatives from Anderson's Funeral Home prepare for the transportation of Jordan Nicholson, who played the deceased victim in the mock crash at AAHS on Tuesday, May 2.
Thalen Zimmerman / Alexandria Echo Press

The last one to speak was Joe Nicholson, the father of the student who acted as the deceased.

"As a parent, you just always assume that writing a eulogy is something your kids will have to do for you. You never really imagine you would be delivering one for them," Joe said.

Joe went on to list all of his son's best attributes, his favorite past times and his future goals. He explained that his son would never be able to play football again or live out his dream of becoming a physician.

According to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, at an average of 30 a year, car crashes are the second leading cause of deaths for Minnesota teens (ages 16 - 19). The leading cause is suicide. In 2020, 16% of drivers involved in car crashes were teenagers even though they make up 6% of all licensed drivers in the state.

Thalen Zimmerman of Alexandria joined the Echo Press team as a full-time reporter in Aug. 2021, after graduating from Bemidji State University with a bachelor of science degree in mass communication in May of 2021.
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