There was an eerie silence among those who assembled in the Madison Central High School gymnasium Tuesday as grieving grandfather David Warner relayed the events of Oct. 2, 2004, that took his 6-year-old grandson Branson.
Warner was one of the speakers at the Ghost Out assembly, part of a weeklong program to show the effects of bad decision-making and risky behavior often associated with spring break, which is coming up next week for Madison County students.
Warner recalled how on that day in 2004, they were on the way to Frankfort and Branson was finally big enough to sit in the front seat. He remembered how his grandson’s last word was “Granddaddy!” as he too saw the drunk driver barreling toward their car.
“And when the dust settled,” Warner said he looked over at Branson and he knew he was dead. His neck had been broken and leg mangled from the impact.
Over the past eight years, Warner said he has been most haunted by the little shards of glass that were imbedded in his grandson’s eyes, which were open wide “in a death stare."
As anyone would do, he said, Warner attempted CPR on his grandson, who had a small cut on his mouth.
“To this day, I can still taste that blood,” Warner told the crowd of hushed high school students, teachers and guests.
A team of doctors tried to revive Branson, and they eventually got a pulse. But Branson had been without oxygen for so long, he was likely brain dead, doctors said.
Branson passed shortly thereafter.
One in three people will be affected by drunk driving, Warner said, “and I just happened to be one of those people.”
The Ghost Out assembly was the culmination of daylong activities devised to encourage good decision-making.
Student-led community service group, Central In Action, volunteered to “die” throughout the day, representing the statistic that every 30 minutes in the United States, a person under 18 is killed in a distracted driving accident, said CIA sponsor Maryann Haynes.
The doomed individuals were pulled from classrooms and the lunchroom as the Grim Reaper, portrayed by senior Logan Shade, was accompanied by emergency responders to deliver the news.
Fictitious news reports flashed across the screen of every television in the school announcing the death of fellow classmates.
Although several students could be heard snickering at the dramatization, sophomore and CIA volunteer Jake Campbell said after the week’s planned events, the message will reach some students, but not all.
The Ghost Out assembly will be most impactful, he said. But, “everyone thinks they are above dying, especially in our age group.”
Madison County Coroner Jimmy Cornelison also spoke during the assembly.
“My day begins as yours end,” he said, while throwing a body bag on the ground for emphasis. He spoke frankly about what happens to a corpse after an accident.
His job is to “put the pieces together,” he said, so he can answer the many questions from the victim’s grieving family.
“You might hide things from your family, but you can’t hide things from me,” said Cornelison, who must rummage through a victim’s belongings, examine the person’s body “from head to toe” and test for possible impairing substances in the victim’s system.
Cornelison, who is a Central graduate, has lived in the region for many years, he said. So many times “I know exactly whose door to knock on” when delivering the news of someone’s death.
Every time he makes those trips, he glances at the family pictures placed about the home, he said.
“And I think, ‘you will no longer have fresh pictures on that wall,’” Cornelison said. “Because either you, or someone you let make that decision for you, cost you your life.”
Cornelison often has to convince parents not to come down to the morgue to see the body, he said. “Because that is not the last picture you want of your child.”
Cornelison urged students to listen to what adults are trying to tell them.
“I know we’re older, but we’re not all dumber,” he added.
Students were visibly moved by the speakers. Many wiped away tears as presenters transitioned into the second half of the assembly.
While standing next to a coffin, Pastor Bill Fort of First Baptist Church read the eulogy of each student who met the Grim Reaper that day.
Students were “laid to rest” in a semi-circle on the gym floor while state troopers and emergency responders draped a white sheet over their bodies. A single flower was laid atop each “corpse.”
As they were about to commemorate the last student, she suddenly said, “No, I don’t want to die. I need a ride home.” And with that, she fled, exemplifying how easy it is to make the right decision, instead of a fatal one.
Christina Dimino, a senior at Eastern Kentucky University, was one of the nursing students who organized the Ghost Out.
She has vivid memories of a similar activity conducted at her high school, which occurred shortly after one of her classmates had been killed in an accident, she said.
“I think students need to see this and realize that this could happen to them,” Dimino said.
Danny Miller, a professor for EKU’s emergency medical care program, applied moulage, or “casualty makeup” to the dead students to simulate the various injuries that can occur during an accident.
Using moulage for the “shock effect” is an important part of paramedic education, Miller said.
As a paramedic for more than 30 years, Miller has seen every type of injury imaginable, he said, but the fragility of life is a hard concept to convey.
“I wish there was some sort of magic that would resonate with students,” he said. “Because as shocking as the makeup is, tomorrow they will see their classmates again.”
Miller said the key is to just keep trying to get the message across “until we find something that works.”
Crystal Wylie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 623-1669, Ext. 6696.