By Travis Andersen
A high school senior crashes her Audi into an SUV, killing an 18-year-old boy and injuring two of his friends. While it’s an all too familiar tale during prom season, this time it was only make believe.
Students at Malden High School got a chilling reminder of the perils of drunk driving, as seniors from the group Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) staged a crash that included a gruesome fatality.
While Matthew Zunitch, who is actually 18, played dead on the street with fake brains splattered near his head, senior Ariana Della Gatta yelled frantically to her three passengers in the Audi.
“Get the beer out! Get the beer out!” she shouted as they threw empty cans from the car. Meanwhile, Malden firefighters struggled to pry one of Zunitch’s friends from an upturned Isuzu.
Moments later, police arrested Della Gatta and senior Audrey Spataro, who flailed and screamed in the arms of a Malden officer.
“All my anxiety just came through,” Spadaro said afterward. “I had no control over my body.”
Though her performance prompted a few snickers from the crowd of about 300 seniors watching on Holden Street, no one laughed when rescue workers loaded Zunitch into a hearse.
Students later filed into the auditorium for his wake, complete with a casket and senior Melissa Sylvain’s rendition of “Amazing Grace.”
Senior Taylor Lombard, best friends with Zunitch since the first grade, eulogized him during the assembly.
“For the past 11 years we’ve been inseparable,” she said. “This horrible event has hit me like a lightning bolt.”
Lombard later said she cried real tears during her remarks.
Zunitch, who plans to attend Brandeis University with Lombard in the fall, read “The Drunk Driving Poem” offstage, an anonymous work that ends, “I have one last question, Mom, before I say goodbye. I didn’t drink and drive, so why am I the one to die?”
“It was sad,” said senior Paul Ebai. “I don’t drink, but it’s going to make think about who I hang out with on [prom night].”
Making kids think is the goal of the presentation, which the nonprofit Healthy Malden, Inc. has staged for 11 years with help from local auto body shops, funeral homes, and the Somerville-based Cataldo Ambulance Service.
Principal Dana Brown said he hopes all students would drive safely after the upcoming Malden prom, but he can’t make any guarantees.
“I’m torn, because our kids went to Saugus [High School] and watched their mock crash two weeks ago,” he said. “Obviously some kids at that assembly didn’t get the message.”
Police arrested Saugus senior Jonathan Caruso after he allegedly struck and killed a 67-year-old woman while driving drunk, following a school-sponsored harbor cruise in Boston.
Malden High School has endured its own share of trauma this year. Recent graduate Michael Luu died in a car accident in October, and sophomore Romeo Murray was stabbed to death in January.
“Our kids are a little on edge this year,” Brown said.
Joan Aeschlimann, school nurse at Saugus High, told Malden seniors that she came to the assembly from a counseling session at her school, where teens cried “hysterically” over the Caruso incident.
She also discussed her husband, who died in a drunk driving accident in 1997.
“My husband was a really nice guy, but he made a stupid mistake,” she said. “I hope none of you make that same stupid decision.”