TAMPA — The high-schoolers whooped and clapped when a Hillsborough County Fire Rescue team used the jaws of life to rip open a red Infiniti. They yelled "Hi Kerry!" to their friend as she was covered up by a sheet and placed into a body bag. Some chuckled as a senior on the student council was made to perform field sobriety tests on the football field.
But when an unfamiliar face took the microphone, everyone quieted down.
"This stuff is real," said 20-year-old Brian Rushing. "That guy was me."
Rushing's speech was the finale to a mock DUI crash presentation Wednesday morning for Gaither High School students, whose prom is Saturday at the University of South Florida Marshall Center.
The staged event featured students who posed as injured and dead in a crash involving a drunken student driver. One was taken away in a Bayflight helicopter from St. Joseph's Hospital. Another left in a funeral home hearse.
All the time and services from the fire department, Sheriff's Office and Stowers Funeral Home were donated. Stepps Towing provided the two smashed cars.
The real impact, though, seemed to come when Rushing spoke about his brother's death in a crash two summers ago. They had been at a party in Pasco County together and had been drinking. Rushing, who was 18 at the time, couldn't react fast enough when a deer ran in front of the car.
He woke up in a hospital, where he was told his brother was dead. He was charged with DUI manslaughter, served nine months of a 14 1/2-year prison sentence and will be on probation for the next decade. He'll never drive again, he told the hushed students.
"You don't have to go through what I went through," Rushing said.
After the presentation, students lined up to talk to Rushing, who graduated from Land O' Lakes High School in 2007. They shook his hand, shook their heads and thanked him for his story.
Isaac Baime, 17, mentioned his two brothers. "If that happened to me, I don't know if I'd be able to ever talk to my parents."
Steffan Siebel-Cortopassi, also 17, said he won't think twice about speaking up to friends who try to drive after drinking.
"Thank you," Siebel-Cortopassi said, grasping Rushing's hand.
"Just trying to do the right thing," Rushing said. "I was here, man. I was sitting in the bleachers. It's serious."
Devin Taylor, 18, teared up during Rushing's speech. Taylor, a senior senator on the student council, played the driver charged with DUI manslaughter in the mock crash.
He stumbled out of the car, disheveled and limping, before a Hillsborough sheriff's deputy made him put his finger to his nose, follow a straight line and stand on one foot. He left the football field in handcuffs.
It was all pretend, but Taylor said the whole thing hit home. He said his brother, who just turned 21, was in a DUI accident that left him in the hospital for months.
"Hopefully, it's an eye-opener for a lot of people," Taylor said.
The students headed back to class, a little more quietly than when they filed in about an hour earlier.
Sheriff's Deputy Teresa Amin, who narrated the elaborate crash scene, turned to look back at them. Does she think it made a difference?
"I hope so." Amin said. "Even if it just touched a few."
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