Crews test response to a train crash Mock disaster could avert real one

October 11, 1992|By Carol L. Bowers | Carol L. Bowers,Staff Writer

ABERDEEN -- Sixty seconds.

That's all that kept the January 1987 Amtrak train disaster -- in which an Amtrak passenger train collided with a string of Conrail locomotives in Chase, killing 16 people and injuring 170 others -- from happening in Harford County.

"Everyone worries about the hazardous materials stored at Aberdeen Proving Ground and the Edgewood Arsenal, but we have the potential for something much worse with I-95, U.S. 40 and two railroads coming through the county," said James W. Terrell, chief of emergency operations for Harford County.

Yesterday, Harford emergency personnel tested their response TTC to "much worse" during a re-creation of Maryland's worst rail accident.

In the fake train crash, in which 200 rescue personnel participated, 11 passengers were "killed" and 61 others were "injured" when the Amtrak Metroliner they were in "struck" a freight train that had derailed.

Train cars, on loan from Amtrak and Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC), could not be actually stacked or damaged by rescue equipment. So the incident's creators piled crushed automobiles three-high at several sites next to the tracks, simulating the heaps of mangled metal that firefighters in Chase had to cut through to get to passengers.

Passengers -- volunteers made up with fake blood and wounds so they would look injured -- waited to be rescued, although some wandered away in a daze, seeking help at area homes, just as some passengers did in the Chase crash.

Moments after the simulated crash, the scene was eerily silent. Nothing moved. No one even moaned.

Clothing -- men's, women's and children's -- was strewn on the ground. Personal belongings, including a child's pink Mickey Mouse umbrella, and a copy of Daniel DeFoe's "Moll Flanders," ** cluttered the tracks.

Then a fire broke out in a leaking propane tank at the front of the passenger train, and fuel began to spill. Drums containing "corrosives" -- no one knew what kind -- began oozing their contents onto the ground.

The freight train's engineer, inspecting the damage, was "killed" when an Army tank that had been leaning awkwardly from a flatbed fell on him. Passengers in a train car (in reality a school bus) screamed.

The first person to arrive was an Aberdeen police officer.

"The question now is what will he do first," said Charles M. Jones, chief of the Aberdeen Proving Ground Fire Department, who helped create the scene. "He has to decide whether the fire is a priority, or the rescue is a priority."

The officer called for fire and rescue equipment, then ran to check out the train compartments, pulling surgical gloves onto his hands. Within 10 minutes, the scene commander and two ambulances had arrived.

Within a few hours, nine ambulances, five engines, the four-unit hazardous materials response team, two ladder trucks, four rescue trucks, four special units, the Critical Incident Stress Debriefing Team that counsels firefighters and victims at an emergency scene, and firefighters from Cecil County and Aberdeen Proving Ground crowded the half-mile-long crash site.

"Is this like it was that day? Yes, they did a good job," said Capt. Richard Brooks, of the Fawn Grove Volunteer Fire Co. in Harford and a public information officer in the Baltimore County Fire Department.

He was in Baltimore County's Engine 54, the first to respond to the Chase crash.

"Memories? I think about it every day," Captain Brooks said of the Chase incident. "Every time you go out on a job, you don't know what the situation will be.

"Think about it. Fifteen seconds' difference, and the accident would have happened over the Gunpowder River Bridge. Sixty seconds' difference, and it would have happened in Harford County."

He said Harford's volunteer firefighters (the county has 11 volunteer fire companies) and rescue personnel were generally responding well to the challenge in Aberdeen.

"One of the six passengers wandering down the road this morning collapsed," Captain Brooks said. "She had two broken arms, and she couldn't stand the pain anymore, but there was nothing more serious wrong with her.

"An ambulance pulled up a block away, looked at her and let her lay there. They followed their instructions, and went on to help people with life-threatening injuries. They did their job. That was exactly what they were supposed to do."

But Captain Brooks, and the APG fire chief, know that the assessment of the emergency personnel's performance, due Friday, will highlight some deficiencies.

By noon, for instance, Chief Jones knew that fatigued firefighters were not being relieved quickly enough.

"And it took a long time for them to recognize the hazardous-materials incident," he said, noting that more than 45 minutes passed before that problem was addressed.

But he said: "When you plan an exercise like this, you expect mistakes."

Jim Williams, of the Delta-Cardiff Volunteer Fire Co., agreed that working at the simulated wreck scene was an educational experience.

"We don't get this kind of call very often, so it's good training," Mr. Williams said. "This is about as realistic as a drill can get. I knew it was a drill, but I did learn a couple of things today. I learned you can't try to take it on yourself. You have to have plenty of workmanship and communication."

Captain Brooks said that is what made the Chase rescue work so well.

"There were 16 lives lost at Chase, some literally lost in our hands," he said. "But there were no lives lost because of a lack of personnel or lack of equipment. For me, it's not a bad memory at all because we were functioning well, and a lot of people are still alive because we functioned well."

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