Covered in fake blood and makeup with gruesome wounds, actors playing passengers mingled with luggage and plane parts sprayed across the pavement Sunday, as Charlotte Douglas International Airport held its first ever disaster simulation on a runway.
The realistic scenario, based on past crashes at other airports, was meant to test Charlotte Douglas’ plans for an air disaster and give first responders the chance to work together and practice their technique. More than 130 volunteers played the part of plane crash victims, many injured or dead, while about 200 workers from a dozen agencies participated in the drill.
Here’s the scenario: A fully loaded Airbus A319 passenger jet collides with a smaller general aviation jet during takeoff, when the smaller jet mistakenly taxis across its runway. The smaller jet is destroyed in a fiery wreck, while the shattered Airbus rolls to a stop, disgorging injured passengers along the way.
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“It’s in the hopes that if we do have a rare and unfortunate event, we’re prepared,” said airport Operations Manager Jimmy Mynatt. The drill lets first responders test communication systems and other critical disaster responses that are rarely used and ensures that the first time they work together isn’t during a real emergency.
The Federal Aviation Administration requires such drills be held every three years, but Charlotte Douglas has typically conducted them off-site, away from active runways and passengers who might think they’re witnessing an actual plane crash.
Staying sharp between accidents means preparing for an event that might not happen for many years.
The last major crash at Charlotte Douglas occurred more than a decade ago, in 2003, when a US Airways Express flight with 19 passengers and two crew members stalled during takeoff. Everyone on board was killed when the plane slammed into a US Airways maintenance hangar. An investigation found the crash of Flight 5481 was caused by improperly done maintenance and incorrect calculations of the plane’s weight and balance.
On Sunday, the “victims,” many of whom were Red Cross volunteers and paramedic students, arrived hours before the simulation started. They were given makeup and “symptom cards” listing injuries from minor cuts to a severed hand.
Before the simulation, they milled about in a hangar near the runway. A woman with a loop of intestine hanging out from an abdominal wound passed another woman with a jagged shard of broken glass embedded in her forehead. A woman in a pink tank top smeared all over with fake blood would soon be “dead” on the runway, and one man was impaled, with a pole through his back.
Kevin Staley, deputy director of Medic, told the volunteers to scream, call for help and make their injuries realistic. But he warned them not to venture into the melodramatic.
“There are no Academy Awards given today, so please don’t overact,” he told them. Staley also reminded them to remove their makeup before leaving for the day because “It tends to freak the public out.”
On the runway, one “injured” man was lying with fake vomit – oatmeal, actually – smeared across his shirt. “Now I have a Halloween costume,” he said. Volunteers joked with each other and tried to stay warm as they stretched out on the chilly concrete.
The simulation started with a fire whooshing up from the smaller private plane that had crossed the Airbus’ path. Within minutes, firetrucks swarmed the runway, firefighters jogging next to them to make sure they didn’t run over anyone.
“If you can hear me and you can walk, come this way!” a firefighter yelled, and the “walking wounded” stirred up like zombies, shuffling forward on twisted ankles or moaning as they clutched various cuts and burns. A triage area was set up, a medevac helicopter landed, and firefighters and medics moved the more seriously injured on stretchers and backboards.
“Victims” screamed. One man, sitting next to the blood-smeared woman in the pink tank top who had been tagged “dead” by medics, begged for help.
“She’s not dead!” he yelled to medics who jogged by. “Somebody help us, she’s not dead!”
Staley said the realistic simulation was meant to ensure that first responders have some idea of what to expect if a crash occurs. “You train how you fight,” he said.