Local agencies prepare for bus disaster on Echo Summit
The planning began nine months ago, but it only took seconds to send a bus over a cliff.
This time they got to pick the location and circumstances, but for emergency and law enforcement agencies at South Shore Friday was about a game of “what if.”
Around 9 a.m. a commercial bus tops Echo Summit and begins the descent into the Lake Tahoe Basin. Halfway down the driver begins to feel unwell and is suddenly stricken by a massive heart attack. Losing consciousness the driver swerves to the right and over the guardrail. Passengers are ejected as the bus crashes down the mountainside finally coming to rest about 200 feet below the roadway. Wounded climb back up to the roadway and wander in shock while the more critically injured are left waiting for rescue from the rocky slope.
It was just a scenario, but it gave the people who wait and train for these emergencies a chance to flex their lifesaving muscles.
“It allows us to find out what we should focus our training on in the next year,” explained El Dorado County Sheriff’s Sgt. Marty Hackett, the engineer of operation “Over the Edge.” “We have some 20 different agencies that would be called into action for a multi-casualty event like this and it gives them a chance to work as a team.”
Besides the sheriff’s department, all of the fire agencies in the basin were on hand. Barton Memorial Hospital and Lake Tahoe Ambulance staff also worked to test their resources in an extreme emergency situation.
“We have a lot going on in an exercise like this one,” said Lake Valley Fire Department Asst. Chief Brian Schafer. “Our goal is when a real bus goes over it will go like the drill, but there are always going to be unknowns.”
Volunteers from the California Conservation Corps and the sheriff’s explorer program donated their time to play victims. One girl tagged with a life-threatening injury said her ride back up the slope in a litter was smooth, but with moments of uncertainty.
“They did a good job bringing me up, but it was a little scary not seeing where you were going or what was happening around you,” she said as she waited for her ambulance ride.
The exercise didn’t disrupt traffic into South Shore Friday, probably the only part of morning that lacked realism.
The bus was sent off from the Old Meyers Grade. Helicopters filled Upper Lake Valley and used the Celio Ranch as a staging ground. The day ended with lunch, provided by Harveys Resort & Casino, and a debriefing.
“This could and probably will happen eventually. It is only a matter of time,” said Deputy Scott Stewart, head of emergency services in Placerville. “The drills give us a chance to test ourselves so we’ll be ready when the real emergency arrives.”
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