Rescuers play out scene of plane crash
When alarms blared in the terminal and over police scanners at 10:07 a.m. Wednesday, a Lake Tahoe Airport engine roared to the scene of a fire on the runway.
Onlookers waiting in the terminal for loved ones arriving on a West Express DC 9 rushed the scene, with Jenny Rodgers of South Lake Tahoe crying hysterically.
As the engine fired rounds of water and fire retardant at the blaze, firefighters looked on at their fallen comrades. Two airport fire crew members lay still in the grass – first responders who appeared to get too close to the explosion.
Only until the bus holding the critically injured pulled up to pose as the airplane did it become apparent: this was a drill.
The annual mock plane-crash scenario, designed to keep the airport’s Federal Aviation Administration certification, was scheduled before Sept. 11 and unrelated to the terrorist attacks.
Emergency crews quickly set up the staging areas for triage with tarps and crash carts. The “victims” among the 61 passengers and four airline crew members complained of a variety of injuries.
While emergency crew barked out vitals, mock passenger Luke Hontz told the medic he couldn’t feel his legs and felt extremely lethargic.
“The plane kept shaking, and the next thing you know, it all just went black,” Hontz said. The inventive actor imagined himself crammed in a corner of the tattered airplane, which airport officials had bounce off the runway in the scenario, leaving debris and markers indicating about 30 dead bodies along the runway.
To shield them from the catastrophic scene, family and friends of the mock victims were scooted away by city police officers who also set up a command center to disseminate information.
Officer Chuck Owens said the authorities would normally close the airport at its entrances, and California Highway Patrol would block and reroute U.S. Highway 50 traffic.
The “what if,” “should have” and “could have” scenarios were discussed during the agency debriefing two hours after the drill started.
“Overall, I believe it was a productive exercise. I think we all came away with new ideas and areas we could work on refining,” Airport Manager Mike Dikun told the assembled group.
Dikun pointed to communication as a key area of improvement, the first aspect of an exercise to break down, he said. Communication could be defined as participating crew members wearing vests identifying their roles to authorities calling local Red Cross volunteers to deal with family members. Some loved ones participating in the drill infiltrated the scene, steps away from the pseudo victims.
Tarps placed too close to the fiery scene and the flow pattern of emergency vehicles were also presented in the debriefing as areas of improvement.
“The most difficult thing in our world is to pretend because all the training we have tells us to react to what we see,” Dikun said.
Participants in Wednesday’s drill included the El Dorado County Office of Emergency Services and the Sheriff’s and Environmental Management departments; Lake Valley, Tahoe-Douglas and South Lake Tahoe fire departments; CHP; South Lake Tahoe police, Public Works and airport crews; American Red Cross, FBI, Barton Memorial Hospital, Tahoe Amateur Radio Association; as well as Cal Tahoe and Calstar ambulance crews. FAA and National Transportation Safety Board investigators routinely respond to fatal air crash sites.
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