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Holtville High School students played the role of casualties during Tuesday’s drill.Photo by David D. Goodwin
Holtville High School students played the role of casualties during Tuesday’s drill. Photo by David D. Goodwin

Exercise tests response to deadly school bus crash

Published 4:30pm Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Elmore County’s first responders practiced Tuesday morning for an event they hope never to see in real life: a deadly collision involving a school bus packed with students.

Driving up to the live mass casualty exercise organized by the Elmore County Emergency Management Agency, the scene was every parent and school employee’s nightmare. Bodies caked in authentic-looking blood and gore were strewn across the shoulder of Cold Springs Road, north of Slapout. Bloodied children slouched in the seats of the school bus, some hanging out the windows to escape the spreading smoke. Firefighters and paramedics rushed to help the injured high school students, triaging the life-threatening wounds from the merely severe and tagging the dead.

Emergency Management Director Eric Jones said the exercise is valuable “to help our local responding agencies be more prepared if something like this, God forbid, did happen.”

Teacher Dana Stringer’s health care students from the Elmore County Technical Center made up around half of the simulated victims. Playing the role of the lead teacher on a fictional field trip, Stringer dashed from body to body, calling out names, looking for the missing and screaming for help from medics and firefighters. She eventually had to be detained by Elmore County Sheriff’s deputies, “to keep them out of the scene and let us take care of the others.”

Students from Holtville High School and Elmore County Technical Center played the role of casualties during Tuesday’s drill. (Photo by David D. Goodwin)
Students from Holtville High School and Elmore County Technical Center played the role of casualties during Tuesday’s drill. (Photo by David D. Goodwin)

Stringer said the exercise was great for her students, who are already in the process of being certified Community Emergency Response Team members.

“It’s great experience for them to see this from the other side,” Stringer said of her budding nurses, doctors and paramedics.

She said it’s hard to imagine being one of the local responders on a real-life scene like Tuesday’s.

“With real injuries, with students I know, it would be very difficult to be the one on the scene,” Stringer said. “This hits really close to home.”

She said Tuesday was the eighth drill she’d been involved in.

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Students from the health care technologies class taught by Dana Stringer, left, at the Elmore County Technical Center took part in the emergency exercise Tuesday near Slapout.

One of Stringer’s students, Brenda Rosales, had a busy morning as an accident victim. She was initially declared dead and left on the side of the road. Then another paramedic detected a pulse, so her status was changed to immediate transport and hypothetically sent on a helicopter with severe head wounds.

“It was a great experience to know how it all works,” she said.

Numerous local and county agencies took part. Sheriff’s deputies were the first to arrive at the accident scene. Deatsville firefighters were the first to arrive, with the Holtville/Slapout Volunteer Fire Departent then assuming control of the scene. ECSD investigators and deputies tried to piece out what had happened, worked crowd control and began the investigation of 18 dead students. A variety of CERT team members and volunteers with Search and Rescue of Elmore County also took part.

Holtville/Slapout Fire Chief Forrest Gregg laughed as Haynes Ambulance officials worked to get their count right, eventually realizing that Stringer and another chaperone — both detained by law enforcement — were the two missing from the 80-casualty accident scene. Nineteen were listed as killed in the accident, which was caused by a reckless driver who T-boned the bus at Cold Springs Road’s intersection with a dirt driveway.

“It can be a little chaotic, and when you have that many kids screaming, the realism can get to you,” Gregg said.

Five of Gregg’s firefighters turned out, augmented by personnel from Deatsville and Elmore.

“During the day, that’s about all we would have,” he said.

The exercise, he said, is a chance to learn the department’s capabilities and “where we need to learn some more.”

“We need to train more on these mass casualty situations,” Gregg said.

Jones and Elmore County Schools Superintendent Jeff Langham seconded Gregg’s assessment. The work only began with the exercise. Now they’ll take the results — as tabulated by yellow-jacketed observers around the scene — and update their response plans.

“There are infinite details that go into this, but there’s no way to really make this scenario real,” Jones told the volunteers and responders after the exercise concluded. “But this will help us prepare a little better of an actual real-world emergency.”

Langham said it was a “sobering thought” how possible it is for a similar scenario to occur in real life.

“When it’s put into role play like this, it generates questions for us to answer, areas we need to address,” the superintendent said. “We looked for as many possibilities as we could to ask ‘what if,’ to enhance safety. We saw some practices that we’ve gotten away from, but see that returning to them could be enormously valuable.”

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