Rock Island County Coroner Brian Gustafson fears a fatal airplane accident at the Quad-City International Airport.
“This is our nightmare,” Gustafson said. “My job would be to organize a temporary refrigerated morgue. It would be catastrophic.”
Wednesday morning, almost 70 volunteer “victims” and close to 70 first responders simulated a similar situation during a mass casualty training exercise at the airport in Moline.
The Federal Aviation Association requires U.S. airports to conduct the exercise every three years.
A MetroLINK bus served as a fallen Embraer ERJ-170 aircraft — a commuter jet used by United Airlines and Delta Air Lines — that crashed north of runway 13/31.
With about 70 volunteer crash “victims” scattered across a portion of the 7,500-foot tarmac, airport first responders rushed to the scene. More than 10 agencies that participated in the simulated MABAS, or Mutual Aid Box Alarm System, call followed suit.
As first responders approached the scene, victims cried out “help me!” or “save me!”
Dozens of volunteers played dead inside the bus, while others sprawled out across the runway as first responders assessed everyone’s injuries.
Marla Hilbert of Davenport, who closed her eyes for 30 minutes on the tarmac while playing dead, said the simulation felt very realistic.
“To think that something like that could happen here is very scary,” she added.
Eliza Ross of Davenport, who was taken to Genesis Medical Center, Silvis, from the scene, agreed.
“They took all of our information like we were real patients and asked where we had pains,” said Ross, a sophomore at the University of Northern Iowa. “It was just cool to see how the whole system works.”
Accidents rarely occur on an airport’s grounds, said Bruce Carter, the aviation director at Quad-City International.
"They usually occur during the aircraft’s approach," he said.
That being said, Jeff Patterson, who oversees police and fire operations at the airport, said his crews never can become complacent.
“When we’re under the gun like this, you want to get it perfect because in real life, you can’t afford anything else,” Patterson said.
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Gustafson said the more simulation training first responders receive, the better prepared they will be for a real-life emergency situation.
“I’d be lying if I said my heartbeat didn’t go up a bit,” Gustafson said. “This is potentially life-saving work.”
Once ambulances and buses transported volunteer “victims” from local hospitals back to the airport, American Red Cross volunteers served first responders and volunteers lunch, as they would during a real emergency situation.
Gloria Hummel of Rock Island carried one long laceration across her forehead and wanted to wait to wash it off until she surprised her daughter-in-law Wednesday afternoon.
“She’s a nurse so she’ll get a kick out of it — if she doesn’t faint first,” Hummel said. “We were the walking dead.”
Moline Fire Department responders arrived at the scene shortly after airport personnel assessed the situation. Jim Versluis, training officer for the Moline department, said airport crews handled the situation correctly and fast.
“By the time we got here, airport personnel had everyone assessed and tagged, and that’s not easy,” said Versluis, adding that a real emergency situation would bring about 100 medics to the scene. “They can’t send all resources for a drill.”
Wearing a blood-covered sweater, LaVonne Prochaska of Milan, who "died on impact" during the simulation, couldn't help but smile afterward.
“Playing dead is easy," she said. "If a real disaster occurs, it’s never going to be easy. But it might be easier because they’ve been through a mock disaster.”