Brunswick County, North Carolina Crews Simulate Terrorist Crash

Sergio Arteaga has had a spring break he'll never forget.

He saw the ocean for the first time, got interviewed on TV and died a painful - although mock - death in a parking lot at Shallotte District Park.

Arteaga and 19 other alternative spring break students from Monmouth College in Illinois were the critical components in a terrorist drill Thursday morning that brought together all the elements of Brunswick County's emergency services.

Besides the drill, the students also helped paint an elderly couple's fence and did other volunteer work while in Brunswick County.

The terrorist exercise tested emergency workers' ability to respond, rapidly assess the situation, decontaminate the victims, get survivors to the hospital and treat them once they were there.

It involved Brunswick Community Hospital, the county's emergency services, the Sheriff's Office and personnel from a number of paid and volunteer fire and rescue departments.

Not everything went smoothly, but organizers were pleased that the major goals were accomplished and emergency personnel have an opportunity to even out the bumps.

"If we had not done this exercise today," Randy Thompson, Brunswick's emergency services director, said in a evaluation meeting after the drill, "I would hate to think what would happen in the real thing."

For the drill, a wingless airplane was trucked in from Mount Airy, N.C., and two circles of propane were burned nearby to add to the realism. The students were made up with mock burns, peeling skin, dripping blood and small pieces of debris embedded into their skin or sticking from their heads, chests and arms.

The first alarm went out at 10 a.m. and by 12:45 p.m., many participants were eating Philly cheese steaks and potato chips at Calvary Baptist Church.

The drill, evaluators and participants said, was a learning experience.

Things moved too slowly, at least one unit on standby never got called, one of the victims was dropped from his stretcher and Arteaga died in the parking lot.

Arteaga was the victim closest to the emergency vehicles that came to the scene. Within minutes of their arrival, he got up from the parking lot and staggered, moaning, through a fine water spray between two firetrucks. Because emergency crews couldn't be sure the spray washed all the benzene from him, he was told to sit in another part of the parking lot as activity swirled around him:

A decontamination tent was set up next to him.

Two other victims joined him waiting.

Emergency workers donned decontamination suits.

He was interviewed by a TV reporter.

Other emergency workers assessed injuries of those still laying near the plane.

Several victims were assisted through the spray and decontamination tent to waiting ambulances.

It was more than an hour later when Arteaga finally went through the tent and proclaimed himself dead as he walked from the scene to a bus that took him to the hospital.

Whether he really died or not was never determined officially at the scene, but he figured he waited too long bleeding and contaminated to have survived.

The exercise was not meant as a timed drill, Thompson said, so he wasn't disturbed that some officials thought things moved too slowly. Emergency workers are trained to be cautious, he said, and their training would prevent them from rushing to the side of someone possibly contaminated with deadly chemicals. An hour or more between the first call to a hospital and the arrival of the first victim was probably close to what would really happen, Thompson said.

Paula Brown, area coordinator for the N.C. Emergency Management, said the professionalism and enthusiasm of participating emergency personnel was commendable.

"You can't learn in a hostile environment," she said.

She urged all at the evaluation to become certified in federal emergency planning and response standards.

"We're never ever ever going to be ready for a terrorist attack," she said. "The best we can hope for is to be prepared."