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?Mass fatalities' class prepares students for worst

By Ed Brock

Shy Gupta of Riverdale is a U.S. Marine and he'd never seen anything like it.

Two bombs, hidden in trash cans, exploded in the middle of a function attended by about 100 students, faculty and visitors at Clayton College & State University, killing and wounding many and leaving the bomb site scattered with remains and debris.

At least, that was the hypothetical scenario for Tuesday's Disaster Site Exercise of the Mass Fatalities Incident Response Planning course currently under way at CCSU in Morrow and held by the National Mass Fatalities Institute.

Gupta was one of about 50 students taking the course.

"Hopefully nothing like this will happen, but if it does I'll be ready for it," Gupta said.

Funded by grants from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, the free course drew participants from the American Red Cross, Delta Airlines, the Jonesboro Volunteer Fire Department, hospital workers and CCSU staff members.

The entire course lasts a week and began on Monday. The Disaster Site Exercise took up a meeting room and the lobby overlooking the duck pond at the Harry S. Downs Center for Continuing Education.

Many of the students in the class were dressed in medical protective gear, white jumpsuits with blue gloves and booties. Briefings were held in the lobby while other students gathered evidence amid the debris in the meeting room where the faux bombing occurred three hours before.

Bright red signs marked the area as a disaster zone.

"All of the people who might have been injured have been removed or fled," NMFI instructor Denis McGowan said.

The students had already performed one sweep of the room, dividing it into quadrants with yellow rope, marking debris with yellow flags and remains with red flags.

"When that process is complete they will begin the removal of remains. People are always taken out before things," McGowan said. "We're not trying to teach 50 people how to be crime scene experts. We're trying to give them an appreciation for the complexity of the process."

Entire mannequins, representing bodies, were stacked near one door. Other partial remains, a hand here and a leg there, and a baby doll were strewn among Styrofoam cups and other debris.

A gun lay on the floor as well, intended to be an important clue to what took place, NMFI Technical Director Lisa R. LaDue said.

Congress funded the institute in 2000, LaDue said, but at first she was concerned that it would actually get off the ground.

"By August of that year I was thinking I'd better go back to a real job because I didn't think the CDC was going to release our money," LaDue said.

Then came the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and the demand for courses like hers went sky high.

"But it was always this important," LaDue said.

CCSU biology professor Greg Hampikian found out about the program from an associate of his in the Fulton County Medical Examiner's Office. The most important part of the class is that it promotes communication between emergency workers and other members of the community who take the class.

He hopes to invite the institute back to the school.

"I think it's so important and we'd like to build on it," Hampikian said.

Taking a break from cataloging and measuring mannequin parts, Sandy Harrison, professor of psychology and human services, said she is taking the class so she can gather information for her students on job opportunities with government and non-profit agencies.

"Plus this information is not available in the textbooks," Harrison said.

Along with jobs, Harrison said she is lining up internships that will allow her students to get involved in the community. And she's learned things for her personal enlightenment, such as the difference between mass casualties (which includes injuries) and mass fatalities.

While the processing of the disaster site was fascinating, as a professor of psychology Harrison was looking forward to Wednesday's exercise, dealing with the family members of the "victims."

LaDue that part of the class is actually much harder for most students.

"The students say that's something they hope they would never want to do," LaDue said.

For more information on NMFI, call LaDue at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa at (319) 398-5899 ext. 5154.

From May 3 to 7 CCSU will offer a Forensic Science for Medico-legal Professionals class for a fee as part of its continuing education program. A free class on forensic science for high school teachers will be held from June 21 to 25. Contact Hampikian at greghampikian@mail.clayton.edu for information on those classes.