Emergency Crews Practice Mass-Casualty Skills In Montauk Drill

It may look like a terrible accident, but it was actually a mass-casualty drill for first responders, held in Montauk on Sunday. Durell Godfrey

There were 33 casualties reported Sunday morning in a three-vehicle accident on Old Montauk Highway, including one woman who was declared dead at the scene, yet still had dinner with her parents that night.

A miracle of medical science? No. It was a mass-casualty drill for first responders from across the East End, involving hundreds of firefighters, emergency medical team personnel, and police.

While the event began at 9, three months were spent preparing for the exercise, designed to simulate the potential for chaos when disaster strikes. Three venerable vehicles were rolled over and positioned on the north side of the highway, just west of the aptly named Cemetery Road.

“We have a work van, a minivan, and an old bus,” said Springs Fire Chief Ben Miller.

The “victims” were students at local schools, including East Hampton and Pierson High Schools and East Hampton Middle School, as well as some relatives of first responders. Each was assigned specific wounds and placed in and about the “wrecked” vehicles.

“All right, I want to hear some moaning,” a supervisor shouted to the “blood-covered” young people, who were painted with red. One had a branch protruding from her stomach.

The weather was perfect, an unusually warm November day, and the teenagers were laughing before the exercise began. But once it did, they bit into their roles with gusto.

“I had a broken neck, a broken back, and a wounded wrist,” Liana Paradiso, 13, a student at the middle school, said yesterday. “I was ejected from the bus, and I was on top of it.” Ms. Paradiso had heard about the event from her cross-country coach, Diane O’Donnell, who was one of the supervisors on Sunday.

The scene was so realistic that Ricci Paradiso felt a sense of panic as she looked for her daughter in the carnage. She had been instructed to run through the crowd, searching for Liana, right after the faux accident occurred. “Getting to the scene, seeing all those bodies, and you know your daughter is one of them,” she said.

It was acting, but it was acting out a parent’s worst nightmare.

First on the scene came the police, two East Hampton Town officers who drove up in squad cars. Their role in an actual accident is mostly to keep the area sealed off as trained emergency workers arrive.

Because the drill took place in the Montauk Fire District, Richard Schoen was in charge of the firefighters. Montauk trucks came roaring down Cemetery Road, while Amagansett’s force arrived from the west, followed quickly by trucks from Springs, East Hampton, and Sag Harbor. East Hampton Village’s mobile communications van was there as well, as were ambulances from across the East End. Mary Ellen McGuire, East Hampton Village Ambulance Association chief, directed that aspect of the operation.

About 10 minutes after the exercise began, the young Ms. Paradiso was being treated. “They came onto the roof,” she said. She was strapped into a stretcher with a neck brace, rushed to an ambulance, and whisked away. “It was pretty cool,” she said.

Chief Miller explained what onlookers were seeing. While fire crews were extricating the “bodies,” using equipment from heavy rescue trucks to cut open the vehicles, the medical teams were performing triage. As each “victim” was examined and treated, wristbands were placed on them.

“Green means ambulatory, yellow needs assistance, red is the most serious,” said the chief. A black band means the victim is deceased. A young woman wearing a black band played her role dutifully, though eventually she sat up and put her face in the sun.

A Suffolk County helicopter buzzed the scene, then landed on the Route 27 overlook near Cemetery Road. A critically injured “patient” was flown out, not to Stony Brook Medical Center, but to the staging area near the Amagansett Firehouse, her day as victim done.

The Suffolk County MERV-1 — major emergency response vehicle — arrived. Purchased with funding from the Department of Homeland Security, “It is capable of transporting multiple persons during a medical evacuation,” said a supervisor.

While declining to identify himself, he was happy to walk reporters through the shiny new vehicle, a customized bus. In its rear, stacked three high along the walls, were stretchers, each holding a young “victim.” The MERV can car?ry? up to 24 stretchers, with seats toward the front for another 16 or so victims.

Matthew Feyh of the Amagansett Fire Department patrolled the perimeter, pointing a thermal imaging device, an object shaped somewhat like a pistol, that can find a body, living or dead, lying near the road in brush or woods. There were none this time.

“We like to throw a monkey wrench into the drills,” Chief Miller said. In a past exercise, for example, a girl’s “body” was found with a “bomb” attached.

“Thirty victims, three D.O.A.,” East Hampton Town Police Sgt. John Claflin said, writing it down.

The supervisors then gathered for a critique by Suffolk County officials, who were impressed.

“Everybody worked really well,” Chief Miller said.

The idea for this latest drill came from David Kay, first assistant chief of the Springs Fire Department. It culminated in Sunday’s event, from which all but one walked away.

Manny, the police mannequin sometimes seen in a patrol car by the side of the road, was among the deceased, pinned under a bus. Finally freed by rescue workers, he sat by the side of the road, lifeless, unable to enjoy the beautiful day.

Durell Godfrey
Durell Godfrey