WHEN: 7-11 p.m. tonight; 7-11 p.m. April 12-14; 7-11 p.m. April 19-21; 7-11 p.m. April 26-28 WHERE: In the red tent in the parking lot of The River at Tampa Bay Church, 3738 River International Drive, Tampa ADMISSION: $3 INFORMATION: (813) 971-9999 or visit www.the99tampabay.com
The young woman's arm dangles out of the car window, bloodied and limp.
All around, there's carnage. Two crumpled cars in a head-on collision, steam rising from the radiators. Screams from the dying driver who caused the accident by texting while driving are chilling.
Pretty gruesome stuff. And a good thing for the “victims” that it's just play-acting by volunteers and the visual effects are just makeup and props.
“It's emotional. It's tough,” says Rachel Purtz, 20, who portrays one of the dead passengers. “This isn't anything I ever expected to do. But I know it's going to impact lives. It's even making me think about making better decisions.”
The scene is part of The 99 – a national “ultimate near-death experience” aimed at teens and young adults. After making stops in 33 cities and drawing 410,000 people, it has come to Tampa for every weekend in April, with the portable theater set up in the mega parking lot at The River at Tampa Bay Church.
For $3 admission, spectators get a guided 45-minute tour in an inflatable 20,000 square-foot, 30-foot high building with 13 rooms depicting graphic scenes that re-enact preventable deaths due to life choices. Among them: texting while driving, a crack house with alcoholics and drug addicts, a teen suicide, fight clubs, drag racing, gang violence, bullying. Panels display giant-sized mug shots of meth addicts and horrific car crashes. A pulsating soundtrack reverberates through the portable structure.
And though organizers don't want to stress the faith element for fear that will keep some people away, there's no denying it's an integral part of the experience as well.
The last two viewing rooms feature a raw crucifixion scene with a bloodied Christ on the cross, and a shortened version of the Christian video, “The Train,” a story of a father who sacrificed his son to save a train full of passengers. The final stop is an area manned by trained “encouragers” who are standing by if spectators want to talk about issues in their lives or to hear about the Gospel and eternal salvation.
At Friday night's opening, which drew about 200 people, some of the visitors left the premises with the free gift given to all: an edgy Bible tract and a youth-geared pamphlet called the “Book of Hope.” Others stayed around to dissect what they just had witnessed, to privately talk or pray with one of the volunteers, or to peruse the gift shop, which included “99” T-shirts, wristbands and hats.
Rodrigo Araujo, 19, a senior at Bloomingdale High School, gave the tour a “thumbs up” for its realism.
“Kids just wanna have fun. You know, live in the moment,” he says. “I see stuff all the time that is pretty scary. This will really make you think twice about things, no doubt.”
Some were so moved by the experience they wrote personal messages about their feelings and life concerns and posted them on a cross erected in the counseling room.
“The three areas that seem to get the most attention are family, school and emotions,” says Terry Henshaw, the 99 founder. He got the name from a Center of Disease Control statistic that maintains an average of 99 young people die every day – most from preventable causes like suicide or car accidents.
He used to be a successful businessman who ran a sprawling entertainment complex in Tulsa. After selling his company in the 1990s, he went to his pastor seeking guidance on “moving to significance” for the next chapter in his life.
His passion for reaching out to youth came from personal experience. Raising four teenagers gave him some insight on the struggles and issues that young people face these days. So he developed the 99 concept and funded the entire operation himself.
For more than four years now, he and his wife have traveled to cities from January through November, staying one month at a time for the weekend productions. They have about two dozen unpaid interns who work with them for one-year stints, living with host families.
The rest of the 99 crew comes from about 200 local church volunteers, who can be trained for their respective roles in about 15 minutes. They'll re-enact their parts about 50 times a night, as escorted groups are brought into the rooms for the scenes, which run less than three minutes.
Three semi-trucks haul the massive tent and equipment to donated space for the month-long runs. In Tampa's case, The River is providing both the parking lot and dozens of volunteers.
Henshaw only comes to cities where he's invited, and he doesn't charge a fee. He depends on local sponsors – ranging from civic groups, faith-based organizations and police agencies – to help with logistics, promotion and manpower. He says he already is booked through half of 2014.
Impact Tampa Bay, a group of business, community and ministry leaders who work together to influence the area's spiritual culture, is one of the sponsors for the Tampa run. Member Gibbs Wilson, who attends Van Dyke United Methodist Church, says he was “very impressed” with the production after seeing it in Manatee County.
He says it brought him back to his own youth, when he thought he was invincible.
“This isn't a fear-based event. It's reality theater,” Wilson says. “It's a wake-up call meant to jolt youth into realizing there are poor choices to make, and some of those choices can be permanent.”
Henshaw says he's not worried about the soft opening Friday, which mainly drew members from The River.
He says word-of-mouth generally doubles the turnout every weekend, with some people waiting in line for as long as two hours. His main concern is that some youth might avoid the 99 if they get the impression it's “too churchy or preachy.” Promotional materials are deliberately “mysterious” instead of religious to create some buzz and intrigue.
“What we're showing here is real life,” he says. “And lives will be saved if kids see the consequences of their actions. We're here to reach lost souls and give a safe environment to talk about things that matter. And I know from what I've witnessed and the feedback I get that this is making a difference.”