A thin white plume of smoke rose from the broken fuselage of a commercial jetliner yesterday morning at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, signaling the start of a massive training exercise involving scores of emergency workers.
Fire engines from BWI raced to the mock crash site -- a burned-out bus and parts of an airplane fuselage -- just off a runway near Dorsey Road. According to the script, a 737-type aircraft carrying 138 passengers had hit a bus carrying 40 construction workers while trying to take off.
That triggered a response from 150 to 200 emergency personnel from about 32 local, state and federal agencies, including firefighters from Anne Arundel, Howard, Montgomery and Baltimore counties and Baltimore. The fire engines were at the airport before the "crash," but delayed their arrival at the scene to reflect an accurate response time.
The Federal Aviation Administration mandates that all airports perform such a drill every three years. Yesterday's was one of the largest BWI has done.
No commercial airliner has crashed at or near BWI Airport. In December, a cargo plane went down in an Elkridge industrial park, killing the pilot. In 1989, a cargo plane slammed into a Ferndale home, killing the pilot and an infant in the home.
Checking for bomb
Pilots and passengers on incoming planes yesterday morning were alerted about the drill.
The exercise included everyone from state police checking the bus for a possible bomb to funeral directors making final arrangements. Chaplains and counselors were on hand, as were the American Red Cross and the Maryland Emergency Management Agency.
More than 150 "victims" lay in the grass and in the broken sections of the plane -- all splattered with red paint to simulate blood, some impaled on metal rods. Counselors helped a small boy who had watched his parents die. Several people were trapped under the wreckage.
Doctors from the Maryland Shock Trauma Center helped in triage. BWI officials set up a command post on a hill, turned a hangar into a makeshift morgue and established a press briefing center.
Many victims were taken by ambulance to area hospitals, which set up their own disaster drills.
"I think it went fairly well," said BWI Fire Chief Jack Beall, although he acknowledged that the many different agencies involved sometimes had trouble communicating with each other.
But the chief wasn't overly concerned.
Within 45 minutes of the crash, most victims had been attended to, and the severely injured were at the triage center or on their way to hospitals.
At the onset of the drill -- the "crash" occurred at 9:09 a.m. -- the atmosphere seemed almost too calm. Four fire engines from the BWI station arrived within moments. Firefighters walked through the wreckage and past many victims to get to the broken pieces of plane and bus.
Chief Beall said their first priority is help people who are trapped. "They consider anyone who already is outside the aircraft to be rescued," he said, explaining that paramedics from other departments would arrive in minutes.
At first it seemed that many victims were being ignored, but officials said their injuries were being assessed. While instinct may say to treat people as quickly as possible, that can lead to deadly mistakes.
"The idea is to save as many lives as possible as soon as possible," said Dr. Rick Alcorta, the triage leader who works with the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services System. "The danger is that you just treat one victim, and the other 100 don't get any care."
Laura Burg, of Lansdowne, participated the last time BWI simulated a crash. This year, she played the part of a troubled passenger.
Distraught over injuries to her child, she had to be restrained by police -- actually tackled by a state trooper and hauled off the field in handcuffs -- all to simulate the pandemonium that rescue workers can expect in such a situation.
Duncan Henderson, associate administrator of airport operations, said an evaluation will be done and a report sent to the FAA.
In a real crash, Mr. Henderson said, rescue workers should be as calm as they were during the exercise -- which ended about 11 a.m. -- although he acknowledged that that isn't always possible.
"But drills such as this will lead to calmness," he said.