Preparing for the worst

Saturday, October 18, 2003

The scenario was simple but frightening.

A terrorist takes over a small plane and crashes it into Arena Park in Cape Girardeau. Fifteen people are killed and five injured. Once the living are removed from the scene, investigators begin a detailed homicide investigation -- locating and tagging pieces of human tissue as evidence in a mass fatality.

That was the drill local emergency responders reacted to Friday afternoon at a mock disaster set up next to the park's foot bridge and creek. A burning car represented wreckage left from "the plane" that first struck a passenger car, hopped over the creek and broke apart.

The training exercise was presented at the end of a two-day mass fatality response course organized by Cape Girardeau County Coroner Mike Hurst, the Missouri Funeral Directors Association Disaster Response Team and the Missouri State Emergency Management Agency.

A police officer arrived first at the mock crash scene and assessed the situation before radioing a dispatcher to send firefighters and ambulance crews.

Foam body mannequins and body parts were strewn across the ground and the creek, imitating how an explosion might affect the victims. Some of the forms were clothing stuffed to represent severed arms, torsos and legs.

Mark Hasheider, interim fire chief for Cape Girardeau, said about a dozen of the city's firefighters from three stations were committed to the exercise.

"We knew about the event 60 days ago, and in the last two weeks we attended four planning sessions for it," he said.

Sixty-five people attended the course from several local agencies and departments in Miner, Dexter, Fort Leonard Wood, Sullivan, Southwestern Illinois College and St. Louis County. Day one included classroom instruction at the Southeast Missouri State University campus.

Hurst was pleased with the turnout. He had worked on the project for about 18 months. A similar one-day seminar was held in the area about four years ago, but it didn't include a mock disaster.

"I'm elated with the response and with the number of people who showed up," he said. "I think everyone who left had time to sit down to evaluate situations in their own counties to consider what can happen and what we would have to do to work together."

After firefighters from Cape Girardeau and Jackson extinguished the fire and paramedics took the injured away, death investigators began flagging human remains. If Friday's scenario had been real, about 100 mortuary team members from around the state would be required to handle the workload, said Vernie Fountain, a funeral director and embalmer from Springfield, Mo.

Nearby, a temporary mortuary was set up in a park building, where bodies and body parts would be catalogued, photographed and refrigerated.

The outdoor part of the exercise lasted about an hour and a half. But instructors announced that in reality such an operation could take hours to days.

At Friday's event, many people in the audience threw detailed questions to instructors about laying out grids, tagging tissue and gathering evidence.

"You always get good questions," Hurst said. "In my mind, there's no silly question. If you don't ask the question, then you don't get the answer."

mwells@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 160

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