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Burning to learn at airport

By Ed Brock

Amidst the explosions, smoke and screams, Corey Bushway of Riverdale calmly assessed the situation from the triage unit on the tarmac at Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport.

"The captain did a really good job. He's the one who pulled me out of my seat," Bushway said. "I had a broken arm and was disoriented."

And like all the other volunteer "victims" of the faux airplane crash that was part of Wednesday's "Operation Big Bird" disaster drill, Bushway was wet, too.

Light rain began to fall shortly before the first explosions that signaled the beginning of the drill around 9 a.m., contributing a smidgen of true misery to the controlled chaos.

Passenger and cargo jets continued to take off and land alongside the massive drill as emergency crews from the Atlanta Fire Department and Hartsfield's Airport Fire Operations responded to the scene.

Crew and passengers on the planes were told about the drill, said Harold Miller, the airport's fire chief.

"Because at a distance I'm sure it looked real, and we didn't want any panic," Miller said.

The Federal Aviation Administration requires airports around the country to conduct such drills every three years. The last such drill was held at Hartsfield in October 2000.

With the pyrotechnics and highly realistic makeup on victims like Bushway, the drill was intended to put the emergency workers in a training situation that puts the participating departments' resources to the test, said Randy Kamay, a producer for JPM Productions, Inc., the creators of the scenario.

While observers from the Atlanta Police Department, the FBI and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation were also on the scene, Kamay said this scenario "is not focused on terrorism."

"This is not bombs going off or anything like that. This is an accident," Kamay said.

That accident is supposed to be a collision between a small aircraft and the jetliner on which Bushway was a "passenger." The smaller plane was filled with and surrounded by limbs from mannequins and was the source of the fake explosions.

Bushway had one small criticism of his rescuers' performance.

"They were pulling us out onto the wing and the wing filled up so we had to stay inside a while," Bushway said.

The passengers were evacuated onto the wing because the emergency exit ramps on the Boeing 737 were supposed to be malfunctioning, Hartsfield spokeswoman Lanii Thomas said.

While there is no FAA system for grading an airport's performance in the drill members of the participating agencies held a debriefing to discuss what they learned.

Overall they were impressed with Wednesday's drill, Thomas said, particularly by the response time and by the communication between agencies. Arranging the logistics of transporting the victims was the most difficult part of the exercise.

"That was a challenge but it's always a challenge," Thomas said. "Just finding out where the victims are and getting transportation to them."

Having the volunteers exposed to the rain and cool temperatures was also a concern, Thomas said.

Many of the volunteers, like Bushway, work for the airport or companies connected to the airport. Jeanette Leonard of Suwanee works for Kemron Environmental Control Consulting that has Hartsfield as a client.

"I banged my head against the seat and when I fell over I hurt my wrist. I can't move my arm," Leonard said, describing her "injuries."

Leonard and some of the other lightly "injured" victims spent 20 minutes having makeup applied.

"The victims who were worse off came in at 4 a.m.," said volunteer Robert Hughes.

Miller said the drill went well and involved numerous agencies and departments within the airport.

"If you have an incident it involves everybody," Miller said. "Everybody has to participate."

E training is put to good use, if infrequently.

The only major incident at Hartsfield that Thomas could remember was the emergency landing of an AirTran Airways DC-9 in November 2000. The plane was forced to land after a fire broke out on board but no one was injured.