News From The Woods - April, 2006


By Bob Ketchum

Originally Published April 13, 2006

"The Last Dance - 2006"

As much as I enjoy doing what I do in video, most of the time my projects are pretty routine. However, once in a while a project comes along which is not only exciting and fun to do but a pleasure to be a part of. Not only that but it is such a gratifying experience to be a part of a team that's motives are purely selfless, and where all the participants are donating their time, talents, and experience for a common cause. Such is the case in producing "The Last Dance", a live dramatization of a fictional event that takes place in Anytown, USA. It's prom night, and a carload of kids who have been drinking careens out of control, hitting another car filled with more high school students who were out celebrating and happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. This "play" is chillingly real, and portrays what takes place immediately following the accident.

The "Last Dance" is the brainchild of Judy Fagan, Safety Education Specialist and DWI Officer who is the head of Operation Choices. This is the fifth year she has produced this event, and I have been there with her since the start of the program. Each year she stages the "Last Dance" program at a different high school campus. The program takes about an hour from start to finish, and students from surrounding schools are bussed in for the show. The host school's drama class gets the opportunity to act out the parts of the victims in this scenario. Before this event is over, the entire community is involved in one way or another. It takes a concerted effort of all the area emergency rescue teams, fire and police departments, Air-Evac lifeteam, ambulances, EMT's, county coroners office, and a squad of parents and school officials to make this dramatization seem as real as possible to the audience. To say each show is successful in that respect would be an understatement. The "Last Dance" is MEANT to be as authentic as possible, and a quick survey of faces in the audience confirms that the surreal and horrific scene unfolding before their very eyes does indeed have a lasting effect that will be indelible in their minds long after the show is over. That is the prime purpose of this event. To show exactly what goes on (with no punches pulled) in the course of covering an automobile accident.

For the cast and crew, the work begins a full month before the target date. A pre-production meeting is set up with all participants. The accident scenario is sketched out by Ms. Fagan and one by one, each department and emergency responder gets a heads up on what will take place. Each student in the drama class is assigned an injury, or even death, so the emergency crews will know how to respond in each case. No details are left out, and all bases must be covered at this meeting. In addition to making the show seem real to the audience, each emergency responder must be responsible for interacting with all other departments and responders in the scenario. This is a perfect situation for the responders, as they rarely get the opportunity to work together and learn interdepartmental cooperation without worrying that a life may be actually lost in the process if something goes wrong.

Two days before the event, two vehicles that have been donated to the cause were delivered to the accident scene. In this year's event, the scene was located in a field adjacent to the Yellville City Park. As the cars were being "treated" to give them the appearance of being involved in an accident, representatives of the emergency teams surveyed the area and made note of entries and exits for the emergency vehicles, possible landing sites for the Air-Evac helicopter, and other pertinent information which would help in staging this event and making it safe for the audience. A load of gravel was delivered for the cars to rest on during the event, and bleachers were installed on a hill overlooking the staging area. A broken telephone pole (retrieved from an actual recent accident location) was set in place on the top of one of the cars to enforce the realistic look we were trying to achieve to the set.

Two hours before show time on the day of the event, the drama class assembled in the nearby community center building and began the tedious process of preparing for the show. Old clothes that were donated by a local Good Will Shelter were strategically ripped and shredded to show exposed wounds and other injuries on the students. An ample supply of stage blood and make up was on hand. Students assisted each other in "fine tuning" their injuries to make them look as real as possible. At thirty minutes before show time the cast members took their respective places in each vehicle. Some were in the front and back seats of the vehicles. One was draped over the hood of the first car, giving the appearance that the body had been forced through the front windshield. This student was a fatality. Another fatality on the other car was a young girl partially hanging out of the rear window, covered in glass. Finally, just before the first school bus full of kids arrived, a huge blue tarp was used to cover the entire scene and was held in place by a handful of volunteer students.

On the technical side of the event, we had a PA system installed and facing the bleachers. Microphones had been placed inside each vehicle. The State Trooper covering the accident investigation was wearing a wireless microphone. Tim Tibbs, local DJ for KTLO Radio handled all the live and pre-recorded sound. Sometimes we even have smoke machines under the hood of car for special effects. I covered this event with two camcorders and had wireless intercoms for communication with my second cameraman. At previous events I have brought in the media class from the host school and instructed other students with additional cameras to get even more angles to choose from in postproduction. It is a good learning experience for those students. I also invite them to the studio during postproduction so they can get a first-hand look at how I incorporate their footage in the edit to make it more emotionally charged.

Finally, at the appointed hour, the show begins. The pre-show music track is faded down and the tarp is removed by the crew just as a (prepared) 911 call is "broadcast" over the PA system. During the call the audience sees movement within the vehicles and hears screams and moans from the accident victims trapped inside the cars. The drunken driver of the second car works his way out of the window and falls onto the ground. A girl emerges from the passenger side and begins to scream as she sees her school friends. She runs from one to another and screams for help. In the distance the audience hears the approaching sirens of a half-dozen emergency responder vehicles. During the din the PA amplifies the call and response of emergency radio traffic. It seems like it takes forever, but in fact only mere moments have passed before the first rescue vehicle arrives on the scene. A State Police patrol car arrives at about the same time followed within 30 seconds of a fire truck and a second emergency rescue truck. Within moments the entire staging scene is covered in emergency vehicles and men and women are crawling over the cars like ants. It is an unbelievable flurry of simultaneous activity that is impossible to adequately capture with even two or more cameras.

As fire personnel are using the Jaws of Life to extricate one trapped victim, another scene is playing out in front of the audience. The State Trooper is giving a sobriety test to the driver of the first car. As the audience listens and watches, the sixteen-year-old driver is arrested for DWI and is handcuffed and placed in the back seat of the patrol car. More bodies are pulled out of the second vehicle and attended to by EMT's. The Air-Evac Lifeteam helicopter is called in and arrives just as the hearse arrives to claim the first body. Before the lifeless body of a student is placed in the hearse, his parents approach and are allowed to view his body in the body bag. Although there are a thousand high school students and adults present in the audience, you could hear a pin drop. The mother (the participating student's real mother) finally breaks down and loses control. She is pulled away by her husband as she strokes her son's hair one last time. As the helicopter flies off with two critically injured kids the second body is zipped up in a body bag and placed in another waiting hearse.

Finally, it's over, and the crew begins to wind down the operation. A song begins playing, and then Ms. Fagan, holding hands with all the students in the cast walks out in a line in front of the audience. All of the participating emergency crew have now lined up and stand at parade rest in a line behind the cast line. During the song, each student says a few words (prepared on tape earlier) about their experience in the "Last Dance". Finally, Judy Fagan gives thankful acknowledgments to all the participants and the cast takes a stage bow together to a standing room only crowd of appreciative parents and students.

The entire event took only 50 minutes. As I looked out over the audience at the end I could clearly see the impact this show had on many of the high school kids, their parents and their teachers. There was a lot of sniffling and quick wiping of the eyes. Many kids just stared down at their feet for several moments while the crowd dispersed. Several of the emergency crew were visibly shaken. The student cast started hugging each other for support more than anything else. I had a lump in my throat myself.

I always do at the end of every "Last Dance".


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