Drill mimics real disaster, right down to tunnel collapse

A drill simulating the collapse of a tunnel on Interstate 40 in Haywood County tested and prepared the full gamut of emergency workers during an exercise that spanned 30 hours and involved hundreds of rescue personnel from across the region.

The training exercise began at the 911 center, where dispatchers pieced together the extent of the disaster as fake 911 calls rolled in. The calls themselves were dramatic, painting a picture of mass carnage, including the screams of one distressed woman who’d lost her legs as a boulder came through her windshield.

The bulk of the exercise involved the rescue workers themselves, who dug through piles of dirt and stumps and tunneled through concrete to reach crumpled cars replete with injured mannequins inside the replica of a tunnel.

The operation even extended to Haywood Regional Medical Center, where nurses set up a makeshift crisis wing at Haywood Regional Medical Center to handle the influx of trauma patients.

Orchestrating the fake disaster, which was staged on vacant land in Jonathan Creek, was an undertaking in itself.

“We literally took dirt and rocks and logs and used heavy track hoes, bulldozers and dump trucks and hauled the debris to each end of the tunnel and covered it up,” said Greg Shuping, Haywood County Emergency Services director.

Once inside the tunnel, rescuers encountered upturned, smashed-up cars, some trapped under rubble and a few that were even on fire. Rescuers had to put out the fires and cut through car doors to extract the dummies, each with its own lineup of injuries that had to be treated.

“They did an excellent job simulating the tragedy,” said Jim Pressley, the director of Haywood County EMS.

Rescuers got a chance to treat burns, crushed limbs, and even respiratory distress as a result of breathing in dust.

“We pretty much saw the gamut of every injury you would expect to see if such an event happened,” Pressley said.

Some patients were inevitably beyond saving, and rescuers had to perform triage, deciding which patients to extract first. The tunnel was booby-trapped with obstacles. Concrete barriers had been piled up to simulate collapsed tunnel walls, requiring rescuers to bore through concrete and crawl through the openings to reach victims. In one place, the road had collapsed and rescuers had to build a bridge over a fissure before continuing with the operation.

It’s what Shuping called a “very technical rescue experience.” Those setting up the drill observed the actual tunnel site on Interstate 40 in the Pigeon River Gorge to get a snapshot of how many and what type of vehicles would be inside should it ever experience a collapse. The simulation used 25 vehicles: a mix of cars, trucks, buses and vans.

The drill was funded with a $60,000 federal grant from the Department of Homeland Security. The grant was awarded on the premise that it would be used for a regional exercise and a realistic scenario. Shuping said both were achieved, with rescue workers from many surrounding counties involved in the drill. As for a realistic scenario? While rare, earthquakes, mostly barely detectable tremors but earthquakes nonetheless, have occurred here, including two in the past five years.

The operation tested more than the nuts and bolts of a rescue itself, but the systems that support it. The training exercise even tested the protocol for calling in back-up workers at the dispatch center to handle the increased volume of 911 calls to ensure that other emergencies didn’t fall through the cracks when phone lines were flooded.

Since the drill lasted 30 hours, rescuers twice got to practice handing off the operations — both at a command level and in the trenches — to relief teams every 12 hours. The seamless hand-off of an ongoing rescue operation is in itself a useful exercise, Shuping said.

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