Airport officials practice on fake airplane crash

An Alaska Airlines jet with 64 people on board crashed on approach to Juneau International Airport Saturday morning.

Everyone on the plane survived and many ate lunch with the emergency responders who came to rescue them.

The fake crash was part of a live drill, involving airport officials, first responders, and nearly 75 volunteer victims.

*Warning: Some photos depict realistic and graphic fake injuries.

The walking wounded are everywhere inside the Civil Air Patrol hangar at Juneau International Airport. Injuries range from bruised foreheads, to bloody compound fractures of an arm or a leg, to completely severed limbs.

Fortunately, it’s only makeup, also known as “moulage.”

At about 8:30 a.m., Deputy Airport Manager Marc Cheatham calls for the victims to get ready.

“Everybody that’s moulaged, I need you out here,” Cheatham shouts. “We’re going to start loading up vans. We’re going to put you at the accident scene.”

The vans roll up to the Mendenhall Wetlands, just off the Airport Dike Trail near the float pond. The trail doubles as the airport’s Emergency Vehicle Access Road. In a real life event, first responders would use the narrow strip of gravel to access the scene.

A shipping container sits in the middle of the wetlands, simulating the airplane fuselage. The volunteers scatter around it, lying on the ground like victims of the crash.

Over at the airport terminal, it doesn’t take long for victims’ families to show up looking for information about their loved ones. They’re met by Red Cross volunteers, who assign them roles to play as part of the drill.

“You’re a victim’s family member from another country, and you have limited resources and you need help,” says one Red Cross volunteer.

A family assistance center is established at the Extended Stay Hotel across the street from the airport.

“They came in and we registered them,” says Ernie Mueller, a Red Cross disaster response specialist. “We had people from the Salvation Army to provide spiritual counseling. We had somebody from the Juneau Alliance for Mental Health to provide mental health services if they needed them. If they were hungry we had food. We had teddy bears for the kids. Whatever their needs are we’ll try to make it work.”

Mueller says the Red Cross has agreements with airlines and the National Transportation Safety Board to provide emergency assistance in the event of a plane crash anywhere in the country. He says it typically takes the group’s volunteers a couple hours to mobilize to a real disaster.

This is Mueller’s second time participating in a live drill at the airport, and he says it went much smoother than the previous run.

“There was a lot more information flow,” he says. “We knew what was going on. We had a passenger manifest. We had people who were designated as family and friends. It worked out really well.”

As the drill winds down the emergency crews, airport officials and volunteers gather back at the Civil Air Patrol hangar. Evaluators, who have been watching every aspect of the scenario, mingle with participants and discuss how to improve the response.

Fire Chief Rich Etheridge is an evaluator for Capital City Fire and Rescue paramedics and firefighters. While he sees a lot to like during the drill, Etheridge says there are always areas for improvement.

“You actually talk about these things in training,” says Etheridge. “But to put it hands on, you find out some of the communication links that we need to practice. Like, one of them was one of the medical officers reporting to the triage officer, and they could have been reporting to the incident commander. So, just trying to straighten out some of that chain of command stuff.”

The Federal Aviation Administration requires airports the size of Juneau’s to do a live emergency drill every three years. This is the first one for Deputy Airport Manager Cheatham, who says one area he’d like to improve is relaying information to the press.

“I’d like to be better at being a public relations person, especially with the media,” Cheatham says. “In the future we’re going to have some training for this. So, that’s one area that I can improve myself on.”

Cheatham says a full debrief of the drill won’t be done for about a week. In addition to a tri-annual live drill, the airport does annual table top exercises to practice emergency response.

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