A staged calamity proves no match for emergency workers Hazardous-materials drill was 3 months in planning

September 24, 1997|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

Buzz Melton squinted across a South Baltimore field and liked what he saw: twisted metal, oozing chemicals, 20 moaning accident victims.

"The only thing we're missing are famine and locusts," Melton said with gusto.

Yesterday morning, more than 200 of the region's fire, police and emergency medical workers tested their skills against Melton, the master of disaster, in their 13th annual hazardous materials drill.

When it was over, Melton again liked what he saw.

"There are some places for improvement, but overall we're tickled with the results," said the senior environmental engineer for agricultural products manufacturer FMC Corp. and a retired Baltimore Fire Department hazardous materials battalion chief.

The drill, staged at The Baltimore Sun's printing plant in Port Covington, was sponsored by the South Baltimore Industrial Mutual Aid Plan, a group of more than 65 state and local government agencies and companies that organized in 1982 to prepare for emergencies.

The disaster was three months in the planning and unfolded like this: Shortly after 10, a gasoline tanker truck northbound on McComas Street slammed into a railroad tanker filled with sulfuric acid and tipped over. The tanker truck and the ruptured tanker car began leaking their contents into nearby wetlands. A Mass Transit Administration bus with 20 passengers plowed into the overturned truck, injuring all on board.

In reality, it took Melton and drill planners eight hours to position the vehicles just so, paint the bus victims with ugly wounds and create the acid leak. Just to make the real a little more so, the leak was genuine 98-percent strength sulfuric.

"It's going to be real fumes, and it's really going to stink," Felicia Boone, a chemical engineer and drill committee chairwoman for FMC, said with enthusiasm as she helped spill the acid. "It ensures you don't have a lackadaisical attitude."

Last year's committee chairwoman, Angie Mostacciuolo, rated this year's disaster more elaborate. "This is more involved," she said. "It has more moving parts. Buzz has brought some amazing stuff to us -- the challenges, the magnitude, the difficulty, the details."

Right down to the imperiled stuffed muskrat placed at the edge of the cattails that had to be tranquilized and rescued from the spill by Maryland Department of the Environment and Chesapeake Wildlife Sanctuary staff.

The Coast Guard used absorbent barriers to keep the acid from reaching the wetlands while boats installed floating booms to catch runoff.

Paramedics and emergency medical technicians evaluated the wounds of the driver and 20 passengers on MTA bus 8410 (baby dolls, rubber mannequins and volunteers from area companies) and sent them to one of four treatment areas.

For victims, the trick was to avoid the red tent, where the medical examiner's staff awaited.

"I'm not dead yet," joked one passenger as workers filled out his triage tag.

By 11: 27, all the passengers were treated, the spill contained and neutralized.

Videotape of the drill will be evaluated and a critique held in two weeks.

Pub Date: 9/24/97

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