Originally created 03/11/01

Mock disaster tests agencies



WINDSOR - Windsor firefight-ers rushed to the scene of an acci-dent near the county line between Aiken and Barnwell on Saturday after a frantic call from a passer-by who saw a bus flip over on the side of Hull Road and a truck loaded with radioactive waste burst into flames in a ditch off U.S. Highway 78.

Fortunately, the accident wasn't real.

Firefighters were at the scene five minutes after the call, finding seven students dead and nine others injured. Sixteen-year-old Paige Jamison's screams pierced the air. The Williston drama student gave a convincing performance that she had lost an arm in the crash that killed several of her friends.

For four tense hours, 19 emergency crews from both counties worked as if it all were real, just as they will have to do if anything like Saturday's mock disaster ever really happens.

So there really was an overturned bus, put at the intersection a day earlier along with flashing signs telling motorists to slow down for an exercise. And there really was a truck that really was on fire.

Paige was rigged with a container of fake blood to spurt, and the lower part of her arm was wrapped by emergency medical technicians to look like a stump. She was classified as "load and go," a severely injured victim in need of treatment fast. An ambulance took her to the Barnwell hospital, because this was its turn for a mandatory evaluation of how well it can handle serious emergencies with multiple deaths and injuries, said Lynne C. Clarke, public information officer for the Aiken County Department of Emergency Services.

In this disaster drill, the containers of spent nuclear fuel did not burst. If they had, a different set of procedures would have gone into play to protect the neighborhood, Ms. Clarke said.

As it was, people who live by the intersection were not evacuated, and a hazardous waste team determined there was no contamination.

Although they knew their lives were not really at stake, the drama students said the experience was nerve-racking.

Jessica Fields, 17, of Williston, didn't hesitate when someone asked what she had learned in the hour or more she was "dead" inside the overturned bus while workers sawed an opening in its yellow hide.

"I learned they leave dead people alone," she said.

The injured, who had practiced symptoms for all sorts of trauma, including fractures and hypothermia, were cared for quickly, she said: "But I got stepped on and moved all around, and people were pulled out over the top of me."

It was hard, she said, to stay still so long, and when the saw began cutting metal to open a rescue hole, she had to open one eye.

That noise and shaking sensation was "scary," said Michael Amaker, of Williston.

The 16-year-old was supposed to be shaking anyway. His assigned symptoms were those of hypothermia, exposure to cold.

And it was sobering, the students said, to see their friends in body bags - a grim reminder of how fragile life is, after all, even for the young.

Dummies were used for the roles that could have caused real injuries to real people, Ms. Clarke said - such as getting crushed under a bus.

Coroners from Aiken and Barnwell were there with deputies, and in a real disaster they would likely still be dealing with the news media and distraught families today.

But in a test, the aftermath of tragedy was absent.

The drill, training and preparedness strategies are part of a nationwide effort developed by the Transportation Emergency Preparedness Program of the U.S. Department of Energy to help local responders be ready for accidents that involve radioactive materials.

Because Savannah River Site is in Aiken and Barnwell counties, local emergency units hold four drills a year, some bigger than others, but all geared to thinking about the unthinkable.

The drills involve rescue squads, ambulance services, fire departments, medical personnel, law enforcement units, public works, coroners and school districts.

Participants evaluated their performance informally Saturday, pointing out glitches and ideas for doing a better job in a real emergency. A formal report on the exercise will come out later this month.

Reach Margaret N. O'Shea at (803) 279-6895.