We didn't make this up. Our university happens to be based in the safest city of its size in America. So we wondered, given all this safety: are there stories to be told, people to contemplate, risks to be taken? Find out alongside our blog's authors -- two sections of a journalism reporting class whose goal is to show people at work and at play in and around Irvine, Calif. We invite you to read the articles below.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Death is Not the End: Alcohol Tragedy at UCI is More Than a Cautionary Tale

By Rachel Grussi

When he was a young boy, he and his siblings would sleep by the sliding glass door, so that the moment the sun came up, they could jump into the beloved pool.

This particular time, however, it was a chilly March morning in West Covina, California. Snow glazed the mountains that lay to the north of the Los Angeles city, but this fact could not deter the Nuñez children. Raphael Nuñez, Jr., also known affectionately as Ralphy to his family, eagerly met his father as soon as he woke up.

“Dad, Dad, can we jump in? Can we jump in?”

“No, son, the water’s real cold. Touch it with your hand.”

Ralph obliged and went outside to test the water’s temperature, but the young boy’s audacity prevailed, even against common sense. He wanted to be the first among his siblings to be in the pool. He wanted to be “real brave.” And so in he went, bounding straight into the frigid pool despite the warning.

He came out “like a flash,” purple with cold and shaking all over. “Oh, man, Dad, it’s so cold! It’s so cold! I need a towel!”

His father laughed at him. “I told you it was cold, son!”

A few weeks before the accident, Mr. Nuñez picked up Ralph from school in his Corvette. They were on a sales call for his work at Individual Food Group, and were on their way to pick up customers. Together, they drove through Newport Beach.

Something inside Mr. Nuñez caused him to look at his son. He saw how handsome Ralph was, saw his beautiful smile. A surge of pride went through him, but he felt the need to pass on some words of wisdom, as well.

Stay away from drugs, he warned his son. Stay away from too much drinking. Stay away from the fraternities. Stay away as much as you can. You are in college for a reason, son. Focus on that and stick with it.

Ralph agreed, but admitted that he did some drinking. But nothing too major, he assured his dad. He was already a part of Sigma Pi, so not much could be done about that for this year. They did good things, too. Their philanthropy of Winter quarter was the Sam Spady Foundation for alcohol education, which Ralph endorsed by placing the flier as his Facebook profile picture. Two lines stands out, “Who is watching out for you? Learn the Dangers [sic] of alcohol and what you can do to protect yourself and your friends.” He, along with his fraternity, had attended a seminar given by Mrs. Pam Spady, whose daughter was killed by alcohol poisoning. They had listened, but as time would reveal, they had not learned.

On May 7, 2009, Ralph died.

Ralph had a good sense of humor. Many of his friends write of the good times they had together, joking and laughing, such as the time he tried to make someone drink a bottle of fish sauce. It is also apparent in his self-chosen profile pictures on Facebook, as he makes all sorts of quirky expressions and grins up at the world. He had a beautiful smile, obvious and radiant in any photograph taken of him. His eyes lit up in his handsome face, and there is apparent friendliness shining in his expression as well. He was also very bright, even from a young age. He skipped fourth grade, and his chosen major was Computer Science.

In 2009, first-year Ralph immersed himself in various activities offered at the University of California, Irvine. He was a member of the UCI fraternity Sigma Pi, the rugby team, and a friend to many in his dorm. He was enjoying much of what college had to offer, one of which would leave an irreversible impact.

According to The OC Register, he had just come from a film festival and was onboard an Alpha Epsilon Pi bus--ironically enough, the frat may have chartered the bus specifically for post-alcohol safety. The fraternity was on its way to the after-party located at Shark Club, one of Costa Mesa’s nightclubs. On the way there, allegations say alcohol was the guest of honor in the form of jungle juice, a hazardous combination of vodka and fruit juice. Its dangers lie not in the ingredients, but in how much drinkers consume, for its sweetness tantalizes more consumption than straight liquor. The illicit presence of the jungle juice would stop many from sharing information later on, as it permeated both the bus to Shark Club and the blood of many underage drinkers, including Ralph.

The exact events of that night, which led up to his death, still remain a mystery. Either no one can seem to get their stories straight, or else they do not care to share about what happened at around 11 p.m., when all the fun ended in a horrific tragedy. It was a Thursday, a night unofficially acknowledged by the UCI population to be the party time of the week. Somehow, The OC Register cites, the young man with the charming smile, the one who could “handle his alcohol”, wandered onto the 405 freeway, where two cars which could not possibly stop in time struck him fatally. The resulting collision claimed the life of a mere eighteen-year-old, a beloved son, a brother, a popular friend.

What happened?

One interviewee not directly connected with Ralph heard it was a typical frat hazing. A quote in The OC Register from one party-goer claims it was just a freak accident. The coroner confirmed an extremely high BAC of 0.29 in Ralph’s system, as well as trace amounts of the drugs weed and E. But even with two years distancing his friends from May 7, all of Ralph's friends, including frat brothers, dorm mates, and his sweetheart declined to be interviewed. Stunned silence prevails. The only true evidence is the alcohol, but perhaps the causes behind Ralph’s accident began long before the actual night.

According to UCI Alcohol Education Director Doug Everhart, around 60% of UCI students claim to drink “responsibly/moderately.” Anywhere from 1/3-1/2 state that they do not drink at all, while the last 10% admit to overconsumption. For underage drinkers, there is a “zero tolerance” policy, meaning that those under 21 may not have a Blood Alcohol Content over 0.01. This allows for the presence of products such as Nyquil, mouthwash, and milk, all of which increase a person’s BAC without consuming actual alcoholic products.

In many of his presentations, Everhart indicates that many students get themselves into trouble because they do not know exactly what they are drinking, or what the negative effects will be on their bodies. For example, a BAC of 0.08 is the legally drunk status; however, 0.06 is the threshold for the pleasant sensations. Any higher and drinkers lose coordination, have reduced vision, begin to feel nausea, and much more. Many are unaware of the threshold, however, and continue to drink excessively past this point.

On April 19, 2011, Everhart gives one such presentation at the weekly Alcohol Education class at 5 p.m., which students “mandated”, a.k.a. “busted” for alcohol-related incidents must attend. Around the table are twelve students—eight out of twelve of which are freshmen, gathered for a two hour education session. About an hour into the presentation, he comes to one of his personal highlights: “The O.S. Factor”.

“We’ve got drinks like this,” he says, pulling out a can embellished with bold purple letters. It is about the size of an energy drink such as Rock Star or Monster. “Can anyone else think of another one?”

Less-than-engaged students lift slightly from their slumped stupor. Smiles perk their faces. “Four Loko,” they chime.

Four Loko carries infamy with the mere mention of its name. At one point, the alcoholic energy drink manufacturers mixed high doses of caffeine with alcohol; the results were deadly. Everhart mentions to the students that partyers ended up in the emergency for reasons he soon discloses to his captive audience.

“Anyone know what the alcohol percentage is of these energy drinks?” The students throw guesses around. 10. 15. They are not too far off—Four Loko, depending on the flavor, has anywhere from 11-13%.

“Let’s use twelve as an average,” Everhart suggests. “Now, 12% alcohol by volume, divide that into 60. How many ounces of Four Loko is one drink?” The guests are unresponsive, so he continues. “Five, right? Five ounces of Four Loko would be considered one standard drink.”

At this, one or two students begin to chuckle nervously. Everhart catches the gigglers’ eyes and smiles.

“You know what’s coming next, huh? How many ounces are in that can?”

One student, newly awakened, does the math. He realizes the 24 ounces in the Four Loko can in which he has indulged without care previously contains almost five drinks. Like the majority of students, he may have considered the single can to be merely one drink. His mouth pops open.

Oh, sh…!” He catches himself just in time before the expletive escapes, and looks at Everhart apologetically. Everhart is not at all offended by the language. Quite the opposite, in fact. It is why it’s called the O.S. factor, after all.

Students murmur to themselves, more than a little shocked. Everhart lets them for a moment as the startling truth sinks in, and gives them a final admonition. “Know what you’re drinking!”

With 54% of UCI preferring mixed drinks like jungle juice, it can be difficult to know exactly how much or what one consumes. When the drink tastes good, such as when mixed with soda or juice, drinkers are willing to consume more without considering the alcohol content, and it requires more thinking on the part of the consumer to calculate their own limits. Mixed drinks, too, can intoxicate faster, as the carbonation in soda speeds alcohol into the bloodstream.

“One drink an hour,” Everhart suggests, because the liver takes out about a drink an hour. But at a party, where one’s friends are knocking back drinks without care, is it realistic to expect that students will fight the majority and relegate themselves to one drink? Maybe a student just wants to be “real brave,” like diving into a freezing swimming pool, and backing down is not a conceivable option.

And what about that 10% of overconsumers? What is being done for them? Who are they? The only way to find them is when they get into trouble, which not all of them do until it is too late. Ralph never faced a serious citation. The police never caught him for underage possession, unlike some of his friends, according the Superior Court records. He was among that 10%, but the critical time for intervention came and went.

Yes, Everhart can tell you a lot about alcohol, but he cannot tell you about Raphael Nuñez. This is not out of ignorance—this is just a topic that nearly everyone has forgotten. The school filed no charges against the frats for having alcohol onboard the bus. Mr. Nuñez holds no one accountable, resigned to say that he was not shocked to learn of Ralph’s intoxication (“Kids do that.”). Many of Ralph’s friends write occasional posts on Facebook, or comment on his MySpace page for his birthday, but refuse to speak to outsiders about him. No school or outside paper has ever published conclusive statements about the night of the accident, or the consequences that anyone faced.

One of Ralph's favorite songs was "Forever Young." Mr. Nuñez is a strong man and did not want to sit around to recuperate, but even time cannot heal all wounds completely. Whenever he heard the song play in stores or on the radio, Mr. Nuñez would cry. He was and is missing his son.

According to his father, Ralph started drinking was he was 15. He would go to parties with the family and drink there with them, which is not unusual for the Hispanic culture. He attended the Sam Spady philanthropy, and took the Alcohol.edu presentation required of all freshmen. He had a chance to be as “educated” about alcohol as Everhart would have liked, but some things cannot be taught. They must be learned. The question remains, however. How does a student learn without tragedy?

Reporting Notes

One half hour interview with Doug Everhart

Three 2-hour observations of alcohol education presentations by Doug Everhart

Ralph Nuñez’s Facebook and MySpace Page

One forty-five minute interview with Raphael Nuñez, Sr.

One forty-minute interview with Dung Nguyen

Hernandez, Salvador. "UCI student was drinking before being hit on freeway UCI student was drinking before he died on freeway, friends say." Orange County Register 13 May 2009, Print.

Serna, Joseph. "Coroner: Student Had High BAC." Daily Pilot 09 Aug 2009: Web. 31 May 2011. .

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