“Can you make mine more gnarly?”
“Can I have some more blood on me?”
The scene was the Telluride Airport hangar last Wednesday, and the volunteer thespians, a number of them Telluride High School students, wanted more gore on their “wounds.” With the help of victims-coordinator Kevin Dunkak, two of his assistants and some artfully applied Ben Nye theatrical makeup, they already looked like ghouls; Jessie Hild’s thigh looked like it had been split clean open, and Griffin Hirsch sported an amputated elbow. The actors had scripts to match their injuries; Hild was instructed to scream, and Hirsch, more seriously wounded, was told to act “dazed, shivering, cold and confused.” Chris Piasecki had a large shard of glass penetrating his forehead, and was to be unconscious, while EMT student Ryan Mason had a collapsed lung; his breathing was to be “very difficult and painful,” and his personality “increasingly restless and confused.”
Although a few of the would-be passengers mugged for iPhone photos and begged for more blood, their roles were serious: to re-enact the chaos, confusion and grave sorts of injuries accompanying the crash of a large commercial airline. Soon, the twenty-or-so volunteers would be escorted by Dunkak onto an old bus – a stand-in for the plane’s wreckage – and await their rescue from Telluride emergency services.
Every three years, the Federal Aviation Administration requires U.S. airports and rescue services to stage a “full-scale exercise,” as Dunkak put it, in managing a major crash. Based on where it is located, you might think Telluride Airport is poised for one. The airport is the highest commercial field in the U.S., and can be extremely challenging to land in, surrounded by 14,000-foot peaks and perched on a mesa 1,000 feet above the San Miguel River. About one out of every five flights is diverted in the winter, due to bad weather, and the airport is “uncontrolled,” meaning there is no tower to guide pilots in. “The winds can be pretty unpredictable,” Dunkak says. “It’s a landmark. I think some people want to land here just to say they did it.”
A few might fly in for the derring-do, but most arrive intending to stay. The airport welcomes hundreds of visitors during peak periods, says Airport Manager Rich Nuttall, such as over the holidays in winter and during festival weekends in summer. It is also paving the way, literally, for larger jets, and has spent $25 million in improvements (a notorious dip in the middle of the runway has been smoothed over). Perhaps remarkably, given its location, there has never been a large-scale emergency at the airport. “I’ve lived here since 88. There’s been an accident here or there, but nothing major. Still, we always plan for the worst,” Dunkak says, who used to work for the City of Telluride as its emergency manager.
Now the planning is over, and the re-enactment begins. No sooner, it seems, has Dunkak given final instructions to his actors – “The goal is to create some chaos. You’d be freaking out if you were just in plane crash” – when a pair of large red trucks from Telluride Fire Services appears on the tarmac. The trucks are the first in what soon becomes a cavalcade of rescue vehicles; the Telluride Fire Department, with backup from the Norwood and Placerville fire departments, as well as the Telluride Marshal’s and San Miguel County Sheriff’s offices, the Mountain Village police, and other airport, Telluride Medical Center and EMS personnel are all in on the drill. “We bring in all the agencies that would be involved in an emergency,” Dunkak says. In past years, rescue vehicles idled just inside the airport, waiting for the exercise to begin. This year the drill was in real time; Telluride Fire Chief Jamey Schuler, for example, was home eating his dinner when he got the call.
First the fire trucks circle the buses (a second bus had smoke billowing around it and was also part of the wreckage, with dummies inside to simulate dead victims). The trucks put out the “fire.” Then came the hardest worker on the scene: an emergency rescuer, who was sent inside the bus full of passengers to assess the extent of the injuries. As soon as he popped his head inside the front door, howls of mock-pain and fury went up. Picture the inside of a plane in a real crash, a scene rife with fear, pain and emotional drama. The place is crammed with people, some terrified and screaming, others gravely injured and unconscious. It’s your job to figure out, on the double, who could die soon if they don’t get immediate help and whose injuries are less-serious. Being first to an accident, or “at the tip of the spear,” as Chief Paramedic Emil Santé puts it, is “without a doubt, the most stressful part” of an emergency worker’s job. Sante is commanding today’s operation and he, in contrast to all the other rescuers, is standing at the far end of the tarmac, about as far as you can get from the scene and still be in the airport. He is facing the opposite direction of the accident and clutching his walkie-talkie. Where he chose to place himself and his team was quite deliberate, he said later. “The decision to set up Command from afar was so we didn’t get sucked into” the chaos on the scene, or as he tactfully put it, “into situations that were not really relevant to what we were doing.”
Now, the walking wounded poured out of the bus and began to pace the tarmac, calling out for friends and relatives; additional rescuers flowed in, herding and seating them along the sidelines so medical personnel to tend them. That’s when this reporter headed over to the bus to take a closer look. Two very large emergency personnel quickly descended on me. “Are you an observer?” one asked (code for, are you allowed to be here?). All I could stutter was “No, I’m a reporter for The Watch” before the two gently but firmly led me away. “We’ll have to arrest you,” one warned. I resisted, a little. “Ma’am, I will have you arrested,” the bigger of the two said more forcefully. Reporters don’t belong here. Back on the sidelines, I watched in amazement as Brett Schreckengost, The Watch’s photographer, strode directly onto the scene, to exactly the same place I’d just been hauled away from, and started shooting his camera. What gives? The point of today’s exercise was not only to rehearse what to do in a crash, but to find and fix mistakes in advance, and Brett’s presence on the tarmac was an error the rescuers would note for next time: neither reporters nor photographers belong here. “We know Brett. We work with Brett,” explained Reg Vickers, EMS coordinator for the Norwood District. “But if this had been a real emergency, we would have to ask Brett to leave.” Jamey Schuler, head of Telluride Fire, agreed. “That’s one of the things we all get complacent about,” he said later. “We all know each other. Brett kind of slipped through the cracks.”
As the stretchers arrived, the seriously wounded were carried to the sidelines – Schreckengost directly behind them, furiously snapping his camera – and then onto ambulances bound for Telluride Medical Center. The whole event appeared to be in slow motion, but was over quickly. That, Emil Sante said, was exactly the way it was intended. “At first it seems painfully slow, but at the end things speed up,” he confirmed. The exercise, he explained, was staged according to a template called the National Incident Management System, drawn up by Homeland Security in the wake of the disasters of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina when it became clear that emergency personnel needed to be able to communicate with each other better. “That’s the big reason the government stepped in. Everybody needs to speak the same language and be on the same frequencies.” In less than an hour, it seemed the exercise was all but over. An actor who had played her role a bit too well (she was to wander around begging for help, but her character became a nuisance) was released from her “mental-health hold” and let go. “This one was a big deal, and we wanted it to go smoothly,” Sante said. Which it did.