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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Keith Fraser says we should give Isis sympathises free flights to join Isis (AFP)
news
Life and Style
A picture taken on February 11, 2014 at people walking at sunrise on the Trocadero Esplanade, also known as the Parvis des droits de l'homme (Parvis of Human Rights), in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
techGoogle celebrates Paris's iconic landmark, which opened to the public 126 years ago today
News
Cleopatra the tortoise suffers from a painful disease that causes her shell to disintegrate; her new prosthetic one has been custom-made for her using 3D printing technology
newsCleopatra had been suffering from 'pyramiding'
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Coachella and Lollapalooza festivals have both listed the selfie stick devices as “prohibited items”
music
Sport
Nigel Owens was targeted on Twitter because of his sexuality during the Six Nations finale between England and France earlier this month
rugbyReferee Nigel Owens on coming out, and homophobic Twitter abuse
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Web Designer / Front End Developer

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast expanding web managem...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor