HYANNIS, Mass. – Smoke billowed into the night sky and fires raged. A Coast Guard rescue helicopter landed amid the tumult. An ambulance raced off with the injured for emergency treatment.
If you drove by Barnstable Municipal Airport on Thursday evening, you might have thought there was a serious plane crash.
But it was all in the name of safety: a simulated plane crash to prepare area departments in case of a real one.
Dozens of emergency vehicles, scores of firefighters, more than 20 volunteer victims and nearly 200 total rescue and airport personnel from across Cape Cod participated in the tri-annual full-scale emergency drill Thursday night.
The Federal Aviation Administration requires tests of this scale every three years, according to a statement from airport spokesman Chip Bishop.
And the scale was, in a word, enormous.
A handful of wrecked cars were positioned at the airport to represent realistic plane wreckage. One was filled with wood pallets and hay and lit ablaze, to test Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting personnel's ability to contain flaming wreckage. Volunteers were made-up to look injured and were treated accordingly, some even taken to Cape Cod Hospital to test the facility's responses to an emergency of this magnitude.
A Coast Guard helicopter was on scene to simulate the rescue of severely injured patients who would need to be flown to Boston-area hospitals.
There were 37 people involved in the imitation crash, according to Airport Manager Roland “Bud” Breault, 34 of them passengers. “This would not be strange,” he said of the high number of rescue vehicles and personnel at the drill, which he called an approximation of “mass casualty event.”
Breault said the drill, which is the biggest on Cape, gives local fire departments an opportunity to practice skills, some they may not use very often. Firefighters used the Jaws of Life hydraulic tool to open cars. Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting crews, clad in silver aluminum-coated suits to counteract extremely high temperatures, sprayed water and foam on fires. Teetering cars used to simulate unbalanced wreckage were stacked on top of one another and stabilized.
Barnstable fire Lt. Rick Pfautz called the drill “all-emcompassing” and particularly helpful when it comes to communicating with other Cape departments. “We got a chance to work with people down Cape we wouldn't have a chance to otherwise,” he said. “The logistics are something that is invaluable to us.”
Volunteer victims of the crash, many of whom were from AmeriCorps, were assigned injury priorities, such as minor, serious or dead, and appropriately treated on-scene.
Ambulances lined the runway, ready to transport those who suffered “serious” injuries.
The American Red Cross set up a first-response area, a place where families of victims would be told what happened in a real emergency, said the aid agency's David Pollack. “We offer mental health counseling,” he said of one of the duties of the Red Cross at a crash scene.
While assisting those with minor injuries, the Red Cross would also provide the passenger manifest to families to help track down loved ones, Pollack said.
In the event of a real crash, Bishop said media would be taken to the airport terminal while the cause and other information pertaining to the crash were determined.
“You would then be allowed on the roof,” he said, to survey the scene. Bishop added it could be “a while” before the media was informed of what happened in a crash of this severity, adding the National Transportation Safety Board would take over the investigation in the event of a real crash.
“God hope it never happens,” Breault said.