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Fessenden SADD members stage mock car crash

Members of the Fessenden (N.D.) Fire Department struggle to free an occupant of a “crashed” vehicle during an exercise in Fessenden on Wednesday. David Luessen / The Sun1 / 2
Emergency responders attend to a mock DUI crash "victim" who was ejected from the vehicle during an exercise at Fessenden High School on Wednesday.David Luessen / The Sun2 / 2

FESSENDEN, N.D. — Fessenden High School’s Students Against Destructive Decisions are hoping an afternoon of drunk driving  awareness events can drive the point home on drinking and driving.

On Wednesday, FHS held a presentation by speaker Nathan Backstrom, who lost three sons to a drunk driver about a mile east of Farmington, Minnesota, in 2005. Backstrom’s presentation was followed by a mock car crash exercise where three students “die” as a result of a DUI crash, and the afternoon ended with a full memorial service for them. Students from Harvey High School attended as well.

“We want them to leave here knowing it doesn’t just end there (crash site), and it doesn’t end there (memorial service) either,” said Cathy Unterseher, Fessenden SADD adviser. “Your choice doesn’t affect just you, it’s everybody around you including the other drivers on the road and all their families.”

 Backstrom said three of his five sons, Mathew, an aspiring artist; Jacob, who planned to become a helicopter pilot, and Justin, “the brains of the family,” were killed when a drunk driver, who was also talking on his cellphone and trying to change CDs in his stereo, swerved into oncoming traffic and hit Mathew’s car head on.

“The power of a choice defines who you are,” he told the students. “Choices do matter; one young man chose alcohol as more important than the lives of our sons. And his life was changed: Prison, and for the rest of his life he will have three counts of vehicular homicide attached to his name. Was it worth it?”

Unterseher said the mock crash had been in the works for two years, but when the community was solicited to get involved “it just all came together.”

Fessenden SADD President Thomas Van Ness said the five-member SADD board met with the local emergency responders over the past couple of months to work out the scenario for the crash that Van Ness researched and wrote, and the other four acted out.

“We want students to actually think twice before getting into a vehicle with a drunk driver,” Van Ness said, “because their lives mean more than just numbers on paper, and it’s everyone that’s affected if they die from a vehicle accident, not just themselves and their family. It’s the people who care about them.”

During the presentation, Backstrom said he had forgiven the driver who took half his family away, and even visited him in prison. After the presentation, he said the driver served five years and three months of an eight-year prison sentence that was followed by another seven years of probation. Under Minnesota law, vehicular homicide is punishable by four years in prison, and the judge had stayed four years on the last charge.

“I told the press, on the day of the sentencing, they asked me, ‘Are you satisfied?” Backstrom said. “And my answer was that this is not a day of satisfaction. It was a day of great sorrow for two families whose lives have been changed forever.”

Sun reporter David Luessen can be reached at 701-952-8455 or by email at