Pictures of dead teens drive home a message

jA mangled steering wheel. A windshield smashed and smeared by a back-seat passenger who had flown through it. A heap of four high school students, all of them dead.

There came a point during a slide show at Everett High School’s Civic Auditorium that I had to look away. Teens who’d been involved in drunken-driving accidents were too broken, too bloody. The images were too much.

So I turned away. For a moment, the most graphic moment of Barbara Babb’s presentation Tuesday, the student sitting to my right wasn’t looking at the screen either.

She looked at me, I looked at her, and although we didn’t whisper a word in the darkened hall, our eyes seemed to say "too awful."

Briefly I wondered, does she drink and drive, this girl next to me? Does she ride with a drinker? Odds are, maybe she does.

A Snohomish Health District survey of nearly 10,000 students in Everett and the county’s other school districts found that 41.6 percent of high school seniors reported binge drinking within 30 days of being questioned. The survey, released earlier this year, found 30.5 percent of 10th-graders reported binge drinking, downing five or more drinks at a sitting.

Those are worrisome numbers if you’re raising teens. But numbers don’t pack much punch with kids, not like pictures. I doubt the teens who sat riveted by Tuesday’s program will soon forget the stomach-churning carnage they saw.

"I wish I could tell you this is the worst I’ve ever seen," said Babb, a registered nurse and veteran of an emergency helicopter crew in St. Louis, Mo.

In 1985, Babb was called to a scene that pointed her down the road that brought her to Everett High School this week and more than 4,000 other schools during the past 15 years.

"It was this time of year," she said. "When I got out of the helicopter I saw two girls in the car and a paramedic.

"One girl was upright. Her eyes were wide open. Her face was pale. She had gone through the windshield and was all glittery from glass. The paramedic said, ‘Don’t worry about her, she’s dead.’ She had been nearly decapitated."

The other girl survived.

"Whenever I talk to that girl, she says her life has never been the same," said Babb, whose life also changed that night.

So began a new calling. Babb has documented dozens of accidents involving alcohol and young people. She has shown teens nationwide the sobering results of other kids’ lethal decision to drink and drive. Her visit Tuesday was sponsored by Crown Distributing Inc.

Gigi Burke, an executive vice president at Crown, said the Everett business is committed to consumer awareness, including involvement with the Snohomish County DUI Task Force.

"It takes all of us in the community to recognize underage drinking and drunken driving," Burke said. "Yes, we’re beer distributors. We want a perfect world where nobody abuses our product."

People are far from perfect, whether they’re 17 or 47.

"My life’s work, trauma, was a huge business," said Babb, who is 50 and the mother of two grown children.

The messy business assaulted Babb’s senses with smells of gasoline and booze; sights of blood, bottles and bent metal; and sounds of screams and pleas for help. She saw too many parents leave emergency rooms with nothing but plastic bags holding a few possessions, watches, rings and the last clothes their children wore.

Babb lets her pictures do the persuading. She doesn’t tell teens not to drink.

"I’m not here to tell you what to do. Take it or leave it," she said to her young audience.

At the end, the kids were silent. There was no question-and-answer period, no chit-chat. There was nothing to ask about how a stupid choice can destroy lives in an instant.

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