Philadelphia Airport 'Disaster' Drill Just in Case

The 30-foot flames swallowed the aircraft in a matter of seconds, and a plume of black smoke spiraled toward the cloudless sky.

A police radio squawked: "We have a 737 off the runway fully involved in fire."

Three fire trucks circled the plane and extinguished the flames in about a minute.

But the fire - and a resulting 100 "casualties" - were staged, part of a large-scale emergency preparedness exercise known as EPEX 2005.

The drill involved local, state and federal agencies and hundreds of area firefighters, police, and other first responders who converged on the Philadelphia International Airport's fire-training facility yesterday morning.

Required every three years by the Federal Aviation Administration, the drill is designed to hone first responders' skills for a disaster at the airport and assess the effectiveness of coordination and communication between myriad agencies. The previous drill was held in October 2002.

"They say you play the way you practice," said Paul Flanagan, battalion chief of the Philadelphia Fire Department's airport unit.

Government readiness in the face of emergencies has been called into question around the country as a result of the response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

Charles Isdell, Philadelphia's director of aviation, said lessons from Katrina and Hurricane Rita made yesterday's drill especially relevant.

"I think the experiences with Katrina and Rita makes this a little bit more poignant," Isdell said.

Firefighters and medics also performed "triage," combing through a crowd of more than 100 volunteers from area EMS squads who played the part of dazed, wounded passengers. Some "victims" were put on stretchers and taken to 20 area hospitals that participated in the drill.

Flanagan said the fire suppression had gone well but admitted that in a real-case situation the fire would probably be "hotter, darker and scarier."

Yesterday's scenario involved a Boeing 737 catching fire as it landed on the runway. The fictional accident was determined to be a terrorist attack, after a "caller" told airport police there were two explosive devices onboard the plane.

The torched 737 was a mock jetliner, which was fixed on the ground, built on top of a system of five large propane pilot lights. Officials in a nearby command center pushed a few buttons to spark the blaze.

With the help of makeup worthy of a David Cronenberg movie, many of the "victims" sported nasty "injuries" including ugly, open gashes, burnt, blistered skin, and dangling intestines. Some people had been tagged "deceased" and did their best to lie motionless.

Wendy Bloome, 40, of Maple Shade, who helped apply makeup, portrayed a bloodied woman who was trying to get help for a daughter with a head injury.

"Somebody, please help my daughter!" Bloome wailed.

Marvin Williams, 37, of Philadelphia, sat on the tarmac waving his arms and complaining that his eyes were burning.

"These guys are moving quickly and treating people who need to be treated," said Williams, who had yet to be tended to.

He added with a chuckle: "My eyes are still burning, though."

Frank Mallone, a fire official from El Paso, Texas, who had been invited to evaluate yesterday's drill, meandered among the "victims," taking notes.

"The operation looks like it's running real smooth," Mallone said. "I'd feel real safe flying in here."

Philadelphia Airport spokesman Mark Pesce said the drill stressed the importance of interagency cooperation, noting that in the event of an actual emergency, "We would not be able to do this ourselves."

Officials planned to meet privately yesterday to evaluate the outcome of the drill.

"We'll be talking to each other about what went right and what went wrong," said Philadelphia Fire Executive Chief Daniel Williams.

Pesce said the results of the evaluation will not be made public.

Philadelphia Inquirer

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