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Airport is scene of mock disaster

April 22, 2002|BY SARAH MULLIN

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

An attack by "terrorists," an airplane explosion, a shootout and the release of "poisonous" gas were part of a disaster drill Saturday at Hagerstown Regional Airport.

The scenario sounds like something emergency officials would have concocted after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington.

The fact is, the drill and its terror elements were planned before Sept. 11. The exercise - which the airport must conduct at least once every three years to maintain its certification with the Federal Aviation Administration - was postponed from its original date, September 2001.

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The reality made the mock disaster far more credible.

"All it (the attacks) did was validate the scenario," airport manager Carolyn Motz said.

The drill had three components, involving the air traffic control tower, the plane and a hangar.

First, a terrorist group that targeted the airport concluded that control tower personnel would be vulnerable to a chemical attack, so they discharged Sarin gas into the air conditioning system.

Then, they used a handheld anti-armor weapon to destroy a plane preparing to take flight. The goal was to cause a mass casualty situation that would tax local resources and disrupt airport operations, slowing down the National Air Transportation system.

In an attempt to escape, the terrorists encountered two off-duty sheriff's deputies who engaged them in a firefight inside a T-hangar.

The deputies used 9 mm service weapons with small paint ball projectiles. During the mock shootout, one deputy was killed and one terrorist was injured.

The drill was the largest ever conducted at the airport, involving multiple agencies. Airport personnel, local fire companies, emergency service personnel, law enforcement, Washington County's tactical and special operations forces and about 175 volunteers participated.

"What we found here today could be a very real situation," airport Fire Chief Phil Ridenour said.

He said the goal was to make the situation as real as possible. Organizers went as far as scattering clothes and luggage on the runway to simulate debris from an explosion.

He said the main weakness in the drill was communication.

"There are so many people and things going on. There are no real easy solutions," he said.

Ridenour said retrieving the 35 volunteers who acted as passengers on the Blue Ridge Airline's 340 Saab headed to Pittsburgh, Pa., "went fairly smoothly."

Mannequins were used to represent victims killed in the explosion.

Injured passengers were transported to Washington County Hospital, Waynesboro Hospital and Western Maryland Hospital.

A Maryland State Police helicopter was used to transport those with critical injuries.

The plane attacked by the mock terrorists was in two pieces on the runway. Airport firetrucks were used to spray foam on the wreckage to prevent jet fuel from igniting.

"We are a shelf above what is required, particularly with our emergency response for a Category 4 airport, the smallest commercial airport," Motz said.

"We are proactive, and we have more than is minimally required."

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