Screamers and gore galore help airport emergency teams rehearse for disaster

Lisa Burke was having her idea of a great day. Her jeans smeared with fake blood, she had just finished preparing 292 "victims" of an airline collision to make them look as though they were suffering third-degree burns, shrapnel lacerations, sucking chest wounds and more.

Lisa Burke was having her idea of a great day. Her jeans smeared with fake blood, she had just finished preparing 292 "victims" of an airline collision to make them look as though they were suffering third-degree burns, shrapnel lacerations, sucking chest wounds and more.

"There's a real great femur out there, a big bone sticking out of someone's leg," she said with unmistakable satisfaction. Her baseball cap announced the name of her company: Burke's Blood Bath Disaster Moulage Services. "We're going to have a lot of screamers out there today."

Despite appearances, this was not the set of Hollywood's latest disaster extravaganza, but rather a deadly serious training drill at LAX, the Los Angeles international airport. On a remote stretch of runway, out of sight of the passenger terminals, 700 people were engaged in a simulated emergency: a cargo plane crossing the path of an accelerating passenger jet, slicing it into pieces and sending one part careering into a terminal building.

Participants included firefighters, paramedics, police officers, FBI agents, federal aviation officials and accident investigators as well as volunteer victims drawn from local medical and aviation schools.

Ostensibly this was a regular, three-yearly drill that LAX started more than 10 years ago. The disaster scenario was designed to be an accident, not an act of sabotage. But the subtext of terrorist threat was unmistakable. LAX, after all, is the one US airport al-Qa'ida is known to have tried to attack, as well as being among the largest passenger hubs in America.

When asked whether the exercise was set up to cover the sort of procedures triggered by a bomb attack as well as an accident, Mike Reagan, the airport fire chief, nodded solemnly and replied: "Absolutely."

And so, despite the ghoulish touches of black humour, the three-hour exercise was undertaken with the utmost seriousness. Arrayed on runway 25 right was a United Airlines jet and several sliced pieces of aircraft, most of them replacement parts used in salvage operations, that had been arrayed artfully on the runway surface.

Over the loudspeaker, a plaintive voice rang out from the control tower, issuing instructions to the putative cargo plane pilot who was clearly unwilling or unable to hear them properly. "Stop! Stop!" the controller shouted in vain before falling silent. Then came the code for a full-blown emergency - "20314, 20134, 20134!" - a series of loud beeps over the sound system. Within minutes a lime-green fire engine sporting a US flag rushed to the scene, squirting foam as soon as it arrived. It was followed by more lime-green fire engines, some of them fitted with special penetrating nozzles mounted on cranes that are designed to squirt foam and water into the fuselage of burning aircraft.

Behind them came a fleet of red paramedics' engines. Rescue workers were soon sorting through dozens of "victims" on the runway. Some lay near-motionless, tested for vital signs by paramedics, then tagged with a printed label reading "Problem: Obviously dead".

Others were sorted into groups of walking wounded, minor injuries and those requiring more immediate attention. The volunteers wept and screamed and tugged at the firefighter's flame-proof yellow jackets begging for attention. Lisa Burke's forecast of screamers proved to be spot-on.

Airport police set up a perimeter, which they patrolled on bicycles. A small group of news reporters was allowed in with a public information official. When two of them - by prior arrangement - tried to get closer to the scene than allowed they were quickly apprehended and sent back.

LA airport has undergone similar training exercises before, simulating everything from an earthquake and a plane crash over the Pacific, whose waves crash to shore just a few hundred yards from the end of the runways. But the focus shifted after a plot was uncovered to plant a bomb at LAX on the eve of the millennium. It shifted even more definitively after the events of 11 September.

Chief Reagan said airport officials now held regular meetings to consider counter-terrorist measures. They have acquired decontamination vehicles to deal with potential chemical or biological attacks, as well as employing and training clutch of experts on hazardous materials.

Since the Department of Homeland Security was formed last year, it has been pushing many of these changes. So many emergency drills are required by police and rescue services, in fact, that businesses catering for disaster rehearsals such as Burke's Blood Bath have been able to flourish and grow. Ms Burke said she services only emergency services. Hollywood holds no lure for her, and, in these days of counter-terrorism anxiety, she does not need it, either.

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