High-drama drill on lake | TahoeDailyTribune.com

High-drama drill on lake

William Ferchland
Jim Grant/Tahoe Daily Tribune A volunteer victim is airlifted off the top deck of the Tahoe Queen by a sheriff's helicopter.

Prompted by a boating accident that claimed two lives last summer, the largest emergency drill ever on Lake Tahoe centered on an old-fashioned paddle-wheeler stuck a mile offshore.

More than a dozen local, state and federal agencies responded by water or air to the Tahoe Queen after the monstrous drill began Thursday morning.

A life jacket represented a suspicious package found on the first level of the boat. After a simulated “explosion,” a smoke machine fogged the room. Volunteers acting as the maimed and injured screamed and moaned.

“I want to go home,” yelled volunteer Matt Morrison, a 19-year-old masked in bloody makeup. “Get me out of here. My arm is broken.”

Law enforcement from the South Shore were the first to respond. The U.S. Coast Guard followed and took command of the incident. More boats from the North Shore arrived as helicopters from the Navy base in Fallon and Washoe County Sheriff’s Department circled above.

The exercise was prompted by an accident last August when a Bay Area couple drowned after their rented ski boat flipped in a rough wake.

Nine people were in the boat. Strong currents fueled by high winds carried them away from the crash off Cave Rock. One teenager swam to shore while others were plucked from the cold lake. No one was wearing life preservers.

One woman’s body wasn’t found. Paramedics worked on her husband but could not resuscitate him.

“That’s what sparked the interest of the agencies,” said Chris Gallup, a captain on the Tahoe Queen who organized the drill. “They saw a need to come together to communicate.”

The response to the Tahoe Queen was heavy and impressive. Boats from the South Lake Tahoe Police Department and the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Department flanked the Queen as those in bloody costume were unloaded.

Others set a perimeter around the site. If the scenario were real, gear would be floating in the water. Fishing, touring and other private boats would likely be called for assistance.

U.S. Coast Guard officials emphasized that gear should remain in the water and not picked up during a boating emergency. The floating gear is used to determine the current and where people in the water might be found, said Jeff Poniatowski, first class boat swain.

Three Coast Guardsmen, who wore special suits to keep warm in the 50 degree surface water, acted as the floating injured. They were immediately picked up by patrol boats.

The volunteers were taken to Ski Run Marina where the South Lake Tahoe Fire Department took command.

A triage area was arranged. When volunteers arrived, paramedics determined if they required an ambulance ride to nearby Barton Memorial Hospital or a helicopter trip to Washoe Medical Center in Reno.

As officials planned the drill it grew to almost overblown levels. Too many agencies wanted to participate. The number of helicopters were scaled back from five to three.

Some agencies who didn’t participate probably took comfort that Thursday’s drill could be the start of regular exercises.

“This drill will grow annually so every year we’ll throw a different aspect at it and involve different agencies,” Gallup said.

While the drill was serious in nature, there were humorous moments. One volunteer screamed she wanted her money back after the explosion. Another left her keys on the Tahoe Queen after she had been transported to shore.

And as the paddle-wheeler headed back to Ski Run Marina at 4 knots, helicopters practiced hoisting Coast Guardsmen from the top level of the Queen.

Capt. Jimmy Martinez, with Aramark and Lake Tahoe Cruises, looked on with envy.

“I want one of those,” he said of the choppers. “I want to go.”

– E-mail William Ferchland at wferchland@tahoedailytribune.com.

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