Colonia, Yap— The heat of the day was intense, the sun nearly one hour past high noon. Bodies were strewn across the tarmac and under the small Pacific Mission Aviation plane at Yap International Airport. Some groaned, a few did not move, while others walked in a daze or sat on the runway looking lost.
Two large yellow trucks emblazoned with “Yap International Airport Crash & Rescue” raced toward the scene on the runway, moving into position on opposite sides a pile of burning metal debris a quarter mile from the plane. Firemen in heavy boots, helmets, visors, gloves, coats and suspendered pants climbed out of the trucks and moved quickly to unleash and aim foaming liquid at the fire.
A smaller truck arrived pulling a trailer packed with emergency supplies and parked closer to the site of the accident. A man with a bullhorn got out and walked towards the people who were scattered around the tarmac. “If you can walk, walk to me now,” he blared. “Walk to me if you can walk.” A couple dozen of us approached him, some limping from broken legs or leaning on others who were bleeding from noses, mouths or ears. I had CHEST PAINS, noted the handwritten tag around my neck.
Seventy-six of us – all volunteers – were playing the part of victims of an air crash. Many were college students plucked from their classrooms at the College of Micronesia that morning. Others were staff members of government offices involved in the exercise or random volunteers like I was. I had called and offered my services as a civic duty when the notice asking for volunteers was posted. “Will it involve fake blood and bandages?” I asked the woman at the Department of Public Works & Transportation who was answering the phone. “Yes,” she laughed, “it will. And bring an extra set of clothes in case you get wet.”
But the Aerodrome Mass Casualty Full Scale Exercise is serious business. A mandatory certification requirement of the Federal Aviation Administration, it tests airfield disaster preparedness and response “by simulating a full-scale aircraft emergency disaster.” Every commercial airport must stage the exercise every three years to test and evaluate the “operational capacity of emergency response in a stress situation.” Yap goes through the three-hour procedure every two years. Not only does it insure that the FAA and FSM Division of Civil Aviation approve the readiness of the emergency teams in case of a plane crash or emergency landing, it also guarantees the continuance of the few flights every week that go between Yap, Guam, Palau and the neighboring islands. Without successful completion of the exercise, the airport would be closed on this remote patch of land that depends on those vital links to the outside world.
Training that goes on year round was especially active in the months leading up to the all-hands-on-deck exercise on April 26th Multi-agency teams from the Yap Fire and Police Departments, Yap State Hospital, Environmental Protection Agency and the Airport Crash and Rescue team must know who is responsible for each part of the mission and be able to perform as one, collaborative unit during what appears to an outsider to be controlled, and sometimes uncontrolled, chaos. In 2016, a nighttime event was staged; in 2020, a water rescue scenario is being considered.
While we were following the instructions of the man with the bullhorn, canopies were being set up next to the runway and the small airport terminal. Red, yellow, green and black indicated the severity of the injuries where the wounded would be taken for initial treatment. As the first responders knelt over the volunteer victims on the tarmac who had “UNCONSCIOUS” and other serious afflictions from broken bones to head trauma and bleeding noted on their neck tags, those of us who were in the “green” group were instructed to climb aboard a bus that arrived several minutes later. We were taken to the airport lounge, passing by white and blue canopies where men and women were putting on hazmat suits, men were carrying the wounded on stretchers to cots that had been set up under the red, yellow and green canopies. There was no activity under the black tent where bodies would be placed in a real emergency. “No one wants to go near that tent,” one first responder said later with a shudder.
Passing through the doors to the airport waiting area, our names were put on a list and we were told to sit down. Nurses began checking on each victim, giving gauze to those with tags indicating bleeding and showing them how to hold their heads back to stem the “blood” that had been painted on arms, legs, heads and noses with a brush and watercolor paints before the exercise began. Moving with purpose, the nurses wrapped broken arms onto splints while others tested those of us with chest pains to see if our injuries might be more serious. My shoulder and fingers were pinched, my pulse and blood pressure checked. “You’re ok,” the nurse reassured me as she moved to the next victim.
Two large plastic bins were at the center of the nurses’ activity as they moved swiftly back and forth, pulling gauze and bandages and IV bags from the containers. The nurse who had ministered to me when I arrived in the staging lounge stopped to ask how I was doing. I assured her I was fine. ”It feels like a bruise,” I said. “Like I hit my chest on something.” Acting is not one of my talents but she showed concern, nodding as I explained the make-believe injury.
“Bend over! Quick! Bend over!” The nurse suddenly came up behind me several minutes later and pushed me forward to simulate an unexpected turn for the worse in my condition. She called for a stretcher and a small team arrived from outside where they were stationed to help with the on-loading of patients into emergency vehicles for transport to the hospital. I was helped onto the stretcher that was unfolded and placed on the floor in front of the chair where I was sitting. A red strip of plastic tape was knotted to my wrist. A flatbed truck with an EMT in the back was waiting and I was lifted over the side and onto a bench. A permanent wooden and metal canopy covered the truck’s bed. I lay quietly as the driver headed swiftly out of the airport and turned onto the main road. Watching the trees and sky overhead, I recognized buildings and signs from a new perspective.
Police were stationed along the route to stop traffic and give the truck the space needed to get to the hospital as quickly as possible. The Department of Public Works & Transportation alerts the public in the days prior to the exercise that there will be “realistic scenarios portraying injured people on the airport property and may include fire, fire suppression, rescue, triage, treatment and transportation using emergency response vehicles.” They want the public to know that it is a drill, not a real life emergency. Still, seeing a billowing cloud of black smoke coming from the direction of the airport or a stream of emergency vehicles on the road causes momentary alarm among those who forgot that today is the day for the disaster response exercise.
We passed the center of town, rounded a curve in the road, and turned right into the hospital parking lot. The truck stopped and a crew was waiting to lift me, still on the stretcher, over the side of the truck and into the hospital’s staging area. As the stretcher was set on the floor, a nurse called out to her colleagues, “She’s red! Why is she in the yellow area?” Ten seconds later she said to me, “Ok, you can go now.” I responded, “It’s a miracle cure!” Smiling, she helped me up before turning to the next patient. May part in the play was over. Curtain down.
I was told to wait at the entrance of the hospital for the shuttle bus that would take those of us who had been rushed there back to the airport rescue terminal to collect our belongings. Some still had gauze bandages and fake blood covering their wounds like zombies traipsing around in a B movie. I took off my tag, climbed aboard the shuttle bus, and watched the passing foliage and building landmarks from a more familiar vantage point.
In 1980, Continental Airlines flight 617 was on its way from Saipan to Palau with intermediate stops in Guam and Yap. As the aircraft touched down on the runway in Yap, the landing gear immediately separated from the aircraft. It veered off the tarmac and came to rest in the jungle. A severe ground fire erupted along the right side of the plane but all of the passengers and crew were evacuated within one minute after it came to rest. The runway is no longer in use but the carcass of the plane is still there today, a grim reminder of what could happen once more and with greater consequences.
Back at the airport terminal, my fellow volunteers were sitting up and taking nourishment in the form of box lunches. They were now “healed” after acting out a scenario that no one ever wants to experience in real life. Observers and assessors from Guam, Pohnpei, Saipan, Chuuk, Hawaii and other islands joined the emergency and government agency teams in thanking the participants for a job well done. The next night, the observers were at a local gathering spot when I arrived to meet friends. They agreed that the Yap rapid response team was one of the best they had ever experienced, arriving quickly and working together seamlessly. Which means the planes will continue to fly and Yap’s residents and visitors can rest assured they will be well served in case of an emergency that everyone prays never occurs again.