ROGERSVILLE – West Greene junior Karley Isiminger’s senior class project played to a full house April 29, even though it’s not due until next year.
High school students filed into the auditorium at 2 p.m., most wondering what was coming next. For them, classes had been disrupted since first period by a dark, faceless grim reaper armed with a scythe, who entered one classroom after another to take students out.
Those students returned, eyes darkened, wearing T-shirts that read, “I can’t speak. I’m only a memory.” Periodically, television news bulletins broke in with student announcers describing yet another tragic loss of life on the highway.
“Breaking news – a prom night gone bad. This just in – two brothers hit by drunken driver. Developing story – a local teacher and his 5-year-old daughter killed in a drunk driving accident.”
Even more startling, state Trooper Bart Lemansky from the Waynesburg barracks, strode into classrooms to arrest two students who reappeared in orange prison shirts that read “Bad Decision.”
Now, students faced a row of cardboard tombstones lining the stage. Off to one side a coffin sat on a gurney. Isiminger stood behind the curtain, waiting for her cue to enter, as the projected image on the backdrop spelled out the hard truth of her project, just in time for spring prom season: “Drunk Driving Kills.”
“I had to do it this year because I’ll be presenting my senior project before next year’s prom,” Isiminger explained. “It” was an elaborate day of play-acting that had been kept secret from fellow classmates. Those in on it played their parts from the first bell of the day. Now they waited in the wings, and waited to describe imagined deaths that need not have happened. One by one they filed onstage.
“Just a party, just some friends, just a few drinks. Who ever thought this could happen to me? I knew better than to get in that car. My decision mattered.”
“My future was set. I’m graduating high school, going into the military. But the decision I made has erased all my dreams. Now my dreams take place in a cell.”
One was older – a teacher, holding a little girl’s hand. “We were heading to meet my wife and our other two kids for dinner when our car was hit by a drunk driver.” Turning, he faced a student in a prison orange shirt. “Bryan, your decision mattered.”
“One in five teenagers binge drinks,” Isiminger informed her audience. Binge drinking is chugging alcohol as quickly as possible to get drunk. Binge drinking leads to blackouts behind the wheel and in some cases death by overdose. “Now many of you have done this, but if any of you have a little brother or sister, think of this – almost one in three eighth-graders have tried alcohol. Would you want that to be your sibling?
“Students who use alcohol are five times more likely to drop out of school. You may be thinking who cares, but car crashes are the leading cause of death for teenagers, and one-third of them are alcohol-related. I know this may seem like another boring program that our principals and teachers are making you listen to, but my brother Travis used to sit in this very room and think the same thing. He used to think it would never be him.”
There was a slideshow of photos taken during the day as the grim reaper gathered victims and the news broadcasts broke into classrooms. As the images faded, Isiminger explained the personal tragedy that inspired her to work for over a year to put on this show.
“Even though none of this really happened today, I want to tell you the real truth. On December 4, 2010, my brother Travis was in a drunk-driving accident. My brother drank, got in the driver’s seat, drove and hit another car that had a mother and her two kids in it. A little girl died that night. The mother was injured as well.”
What happened that night in Pittsburgh changed lives forever.
Travis, a 2006 West Greene graduate, had gone out that night to celebrate his first day of class to become a certified welder. He spent the next 17 months never seeing sunlight while awaiting trial in the Allegheny County jail. After pleading guilty to homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence and aggravated assault while DUI, he was transferred to the State Correctional Institution-Western, then to Camp Hill, Harrisburg, then to SCI-Mercer near Erie to serve out the remainder of his 6-to-12-year sentence.
For the Isiminger family, it was a slow motion nightmare that began in church with a phone call.
“When we found out about my brother, I watched (my parents) both go into a shocked daze. It was scary. Nobody knew what to do or say.” Isiminger recounted the shock of being told by the media what had happened, of the mountain of legal bills and shouldered debts, of the hours of driving to visit Travis, first in one prison then another, of the missed phone calls and family holidays that will never feel the same.
“Although we have our fair share of troubles, we don’t feel sorry for ourselves because we know there is a family that will never be able to hug or kiss their little girl or watch her grow up. All because of a decision a drunk driver made.”
Isiminger held up a letter. “I asked Travis to help me a little bit so everyone understands what could happen if you make the same decision to drink and drive.” The letter graphically described the sick horror of waking up in jail, realizing what had happened, of facing the grieving family at trial, the hard justice of more than two years of incarceration and years more to come, the loneliness of separation from family and friends, the nightmare of having caused the death of another person.
“I was in such shock I didn’t think it was real. I’ve seen fightings, stabbings and death. Family members have passed. I can’t even remember the last time I was with them. One mistake changed the lives of many people. If you drink and drive, it will catch up with you.”
For Lemansky, the nightmare of driving drunk never ends.
“I want you to close your eyes – every one of you. I have the picture that I want you to have.” Lemansky stood center stage, hands clenched behind him. “Picture your front door. It’s 1:30 a.m. Picture me walking toward it. Who is on the other side of that door when I knock? Can you picture their faces? Did I wake your little brother or sister? Are they standing there, too? I’ve seen those faces more than 50 times in 14 years. There’s no easy way to say it. The pain and the heartbreak when I tell them takes a little chunk out of me. I can’t sleep for a few days. Picture it.”
When the performance ended, friends and family gathered to hug Isiminger, now smiling with relief. Her message had been delivered and there was one person left to thank – funeral director Gene Rush of Rogersville, who has his own grim part to play when West Greene teens drink and drive. “He was very supportive of my project. He sponsored the T-shirts and he delivered the coffin.”