DURANGO, Colo. – Volunteer John Stephenson got shot in the head – and died.
Volunteer Mary Jane Ward appeared unharmed, but screamed hysterically – her baby was hurt by the bomb.
Volunteer Durango Herald reporter Joe Hanel was physically escorted off the tarmac by the Colorado Mounted Rangers.
And Deputy Megan McCulloch kept the shooter on the ground at gunpoint.
All were role playing as part of the emergency response drill held last week at the Durango-La Plata County Airport.
Every three years, the airport is required by the Federal Aviation Administration to conduct such a drill to allow emergency response agencies and airport personnel to test their knowledge and capabilities in advance of a real emergency. Mercy Medical Center and Animas Surgical Hospital also participated, testing their own abilities to handle a large number of casualties at one time.
Some 200 participants had gathered at the Durango Jet Center, in the airport’s General Aviation sector south of the main terminal, by 8:30 a.m. on May 13, for “briefing” prior to initiation of the emergency christened “Operation Thunderbird.”
“Victims” had been “assigned” their injuries earlier that morning, and made up by Lisa Burke, a Hollywood make-up artist whose Burke’s Blood Bath Disaster Moulage Services is retained by entities throughout the country to help enhance the reality of emergency drills.
“Sort of looks like Halloween,” said Stephenson, line superintendent with La Plata Electric, who spent the majority of the drill lying on the tarmac, “dead.” “I guess I’m about ready for a nap.”
But few others were allowed to relax. The scenario involved a disgruntled former airport employee (who apparently had often spoken of how easy it would be to build a bomb). The employee (code name Jesse James) had been fired the day prior and wanted to speak with his former supervisor (aka James Dean), who was on the tarmac.
“He (James) used relationships and old credentials to get out by an aircraft while it’s boarding,” explained Don Brockus, the airport’s deputy of director of aviation. “Somebody’s going to have second thoughts about having let him out there and call the SO (La Plata County Sheriff’s Office).”
About 50 passengers were boarding the “Thunderbird Airlines” flight – an Air Force C-130, the stand-in for a regular Mesa Airlines Dash 8. When the Sheriff arrived, Jesse James began shooting. He also tossed a pipe bomb (simulated by a smoke grenade) into the boarding aircraft. Casualties were everywhere.
“We are simulating this building as the terminal,” said Brockus of the Durango Jet Center. “And it is very much a part of the play that the TSA, airlines and airport personnel have to work together pretty quickly to decide how to respond to this situation and secure the area and begin the rescue.”
According to Brockus, both the TSA and Mesa Airlines were very supportive of the drill, the TSA paying for over-time of five of its employees, and Mesa volunteering their station manager and agent to play out their functions.
“It’s going to be a challenge for the Incident Command team to work out the relationship where there is overlap in (Durango) Fire & Rescue responsibilities and security responsibilities from the SO or law enforcement,” said Brockus when the drill was underway. “They’re going to be employing a unified command structure, which can be challenging at times because instead of having one clear cut incident commander, a situation like this calls for a team of three to run the situation. So we’re going to have the airport, Durango Fire & Rescue and Sheriff’s office in unified command. We’ll see how that all works.”
Meanwhile, out on the tarmac, Sheriff’s Deputy McCulloch had subdued the gunman and emergency responders had begun to arrive. Though “victims” were bloodied, nothing could be done until Fire Department personnel checked for and removed all possible remaining explosive devices. Then triage ensued.
All victims, though their injuries had been simulated with the make-up, also wore tags describing their symptoms. Emergency responders were thus tested, and, following evaluation, placed triage tags (indicating levels of severity) on the victims. The victims were then prepared for transport to Mercy and Animas Surgical.
In the midst of the emergency situation, persistent “mock” reporters Joe Hanel, in reality the state capitol correspondent for the Herald, and Victor Locke, former KSUT radio news director, did their best to get close to “the action.” In general, they were unsuccessful, but Hanel could have snapped a few unauthorized photos.
The “incident” stretched across about two hours, with triage and ultimate transport seemly taking an inordinate amount of time.
“One of the disciplines you try to teach firefighters is first do no harm, and one of the ways you do the most harm is by getting into too big a hurry,” said Brockus. “You get yourself hurt, at which point you can help no one else, or you injure them more, or you do something to trigger a secondary device before it’s been cleared. The pace of things may be a little bit slower than what it would be in reality, but it’s part of what we train them to do and is being enforced as part of the drill.”
Overall, Operation Thunderbird was considered a success, with one weakness seen in dissemination of information to the public. The incident had been underway for nearly 1.5 hours, and no official information had been released to the media – including announcement of the airport’s closure.
In addition to aforementioned organizations and businesses, those participating included, Los Pinos Fire and Rescue, La Plata County Office of Emergency Management, City of Durango, Durango Police Department, Care Flight Air Ambulance, Red Cross of Southwest Colorado, Colorado Medical Reserve Corps, San Juan Basin Health, Upper Pine Fire District, Jeepers Creepers, US Air Force, Sky Ute Lodge and Casino, BP, La Plata County Search and Rescue, General Palmer Hotel and Cascade Coffee & Water.