Scores of high school students were injured Wednesday when a freak accident pushed their school bus into a train carrying ammonium nitrate.
This scenario, however, unfolded into a community-wide disaster drill that tested the response of numerous military and civilian agencies in dealing with an accident and to evaluate first-responders and how they dealt with adversity.
The bus had stopped for the train at the North Taylor Street crossing when, for some unknown reason, a truck crashed into the back of the bus, sending it into the train car. Once firemen and paramedics arrived, their task was to assess the situation and treat students at the scene or have them transported to Banner Churchill Community Hospital.
The Fallon Police Department was first on the scene.
“We were responding to an accident within the city,” Capt. Vern Ulrich explained as he surveyed roped off areas depicting diesel fuel and ammonia nitrate spills. “This was reported as an accident, and resources responded.”
This was the biggest community-wide disaster drill since May 2011 when more than two dozen agencies responded to a jet crash near the high school. Ironically, less than two months later, a real-world situation occurred to test those same agencies when a tractor-trailer rammed into the side of an Amtrak train 35 miles north of Fallon in late June 2011.
Naval Air Station Fallon Training Officer Christopher Pierce said the exercise is one of the best community-wide drills conducted.
“Totally amazing,” Pierce said of the participation. “I was pleased how many volunteers from the Fallon/Churchill Fire Department took off work to participate.”
Pierce said a Regional Training Team from San Diego observed the drill and saw how well community assets worked together.
“You have a melting pot of resources in a metro area,” Pierce explained. “Here, we rely on each other. Overall mission is we assist the community, and the community assists the military.”
Because of that reliance with each other, Pierce said the RTT was amazed how well everyone worked together.
For the first time, Pierce said his office used social media and posted notices on the NAS Fallon Facebook site and on Twitter.
Churchill County School District Transportation Director Steve Russell assessed the situation, as well, concerned about the students.
“The transportation department’s role in this exercise is to account for all of the students,” Russell said. “We are responsible for tracking all of the students, which hospital they are going to and reporting to the district to keep them informed. This is a very positive drill that everyone benefits from. I’ve done something similar to this in real life and it’s something that you never stop learning from.”
Thirty-five students participated in the drill.
“Students like to participate in the drill,” said CCHS drama teacher Glen Perazzo. “All of the students who participate in the drill really enjoy helping out. It’s fun for them to have the effects make-up done to them and have the fake injuries. Despite all of the fun for the students, trainings like this are very beneficial for everyone involved. It helps define roles of each agency so if real life happens they’re able to work together to have the rescue efforts go smoothly. It’s important for exercises like this to take place.”
The school’s participation also helped with the drill in 2011.
“We had a drill like this a couple of years ago and right after that drill, the Amtrak accident happened,” said Robert Freeman, CCHS vice principal. “The drama students love participating in this drill. It gives them the opportunity to work on their skills and interact with so many different agencies. The Health Occupations Students of America (HOSA) students also really enjoy this drill too since they’re able to practice the skills they’ve been learning in the class room.”
While other school personnel and Russell surveyed the scene, firefighters from NAS Fallon and the Fallon/Churchill Fire Department arrived with one engine from the base and two from Fallon.
“This is a good exercise to interact with Churchill County and other agencies,” said Willie Youles, fire chief of the air station’s fire department.
Likewise, Fallon/Churchill Fire Chief Fred Rogne said Wednesday’s training allowed his firemen to work with the Federal Fire Department in dealing with hazardous material or HAZMAT. Since the Amtrak accident, local firemen receive periodic training from the railroad.
Rogne said at least twice a year, the railroad and fire department work together on how to respond to a railroad accident and how to deal with train cars carrying chemicals such as ammonia nitrate.
Richard Gent deals with railway security in Nevada and liked what he saw the response.
“This is a good practice for local emergency responders for something that happens like this, either on a main line or branch line,” he said. “The railroad hauls 99.9 percent of HAZMAT safely and without incident.”
Gent said the drill gave first-responders the opportunity to work together in this real-world situation.
“First-responders realized that they couldn’t do everything by themselves,” said Steve Endacott, the city’s emergency management director. “We have to cooperate, and coordination is the key. That’s why we have drills. The people are here doing what they are trained to do, but we need to get them to coordinate with each other.”
Other key personnel worked behind the scenes. Endacott said an Emergency Operations Center was activated, and amateur radio operators were talking to personnel both at NAS Fallon and with the State of Nevada.
Several miles from the accident, medical personnel from the air station and Banner Churchill Community Hospital took care of the victims, some of them arriving in critical condition. Before the victims could be allayed into an emergency room, they had to be decontaminated in a tent that was set up near the emergency room and a helicopter-landing pad where a Care Flight medical crew waited for its first transport to Reno.
“These exercises are very important and enable us to work with other resources,” said Laura Babiarz, public information officer. “This drill enables us to be prepared and do the best job possible.”
Students who were either treated at the scene or taken to Banner Churchill praised the first-responders and the drill’s scenario.
“This is a great experience for drama students,” said senior Tiffany Marshall. “It allows us to play roles in possible real life accidents. It is also a great exercise for the base (NAS Fallon) and local first responders in Fallon and really for the community. This is my second time participating in the exercise and I knew I had to do it one last time before I graduate.”
CCHS freshman Jennifer Marshall wanted to participate in the drill.
“I think it’s a great experience for everyone involved and it allows everyone to gain practice in case something like this was to happen,” she said. “I also decided to do it because my sister (Tiffany) was participating in it.”
Sherry Nash stressed the importance of working together.
“This is a great experience and it helps everyone learn how to handle large accidents,” Nash said. “It teaches everyone how to prepare for the worst and what role they play in assisting the victims and the accident overall so everyone can work together.”