Rain-soaked training to combat terrorism teaches cooperation

Sunday, April 25, 2004

A Memphis, Tenn.-bound airplane carrying hazardous chemicals makes an emergency landing at Cape Girardeau Regional Airport. On board are terrorists holding 100 people hostage.

Are local emergency workers prepared to handle the situation?

That's the answer some 400 members of Southeast Missouri law enforcement offices, fire departments and emergency agencies sought to answer Saturday during an emergency management drill at the airport.

For more than four hours Saturday, the airport operated under the Department of Homeland Security's high terrorist threat alert, level orange, with tightened security.

A mock exploding plane, leased from the Federal Aviation Agency by the Missouri Department of Transportation Aviation, was used in the exercise. More than 100 people from around Southeast Missouri volunteered to be victims.

While most of the drill went as planned, the morning's nearly constant rainfall prevented the air evacuation helicopter from participating. The use of a hazardous material smoke-plotting device during the drill was canceled because of the weather. The Environmental Protection Agency, which operates the device, was able to test it later in the day when the rain let up.

Jackson Fire Department chief Brad Golden said the rain added a new dimension to the drill.

"We just have to adapt to what's going on," Golden said. "We're used to changing situations, though."

This is the fourth year for the emergency exercise, but the first time it has been held at the airport. Last year it was on the Mississippi River in Cape Girardeau.

"There's a lot of concern about safety on aircraft. This is testing our capabilities in responding to something like this," Golden said. "A lot of these groups have never worked together. We all work for our respective agencies, but in a situation like this, the barricades come down."

From the FBI to the American Red Cross to crisis therapists, any agency that would be involved in a real terrorist act was represented Saturday. Ambulances from as far away as Jefferson and St. Francois counties attended.

Medical workers set up triage and transported the injured to local hospitals just as they would in a real emergency situation.

The pilot's club at the airport was temporarily turned into a crisis center for victims. American Red Cross volunteers and local counselors tried to comfort victims and answer their questions.

"We know it's a mock drill, but we get focused and perform as if it's very real," said Connie Schuessler, a crisis therapist with Community Counseling Center. "This is good practice for us."

Victim Ronda Wheetley of Puxico, Mo., waited patiently on the tarmac for an ambulance after being decontaminated by a hazardous materials team. She pretended to have chemical burns and smoke inhalation from the mock crash. The experience gave her real insight into what happens in a terrorist situation.

"We need to do more of this, because you never know when this could really happen," Wheetley said.

cclark@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 128

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