Reporting Bill Hudson
ANOKA, Minn. (WCCO) – It could happen anytime — a collision between a Northstar commuter rail train packed with Twins fans and a freight train hauling dangerous chemicals.
That’s exactly the scene that played out in Anoka on Saturday as hundreds of volunteer victims and first responders participated in a mass disaster drill.
At 8 a.m., police radios crackled to life with the first signs of trouble.
“He’s coming across a very noxious odor in the air, unable to proceed further,” a BNSF conductor explained.
With that radio call the large scale drill hit high gear. Hundreds of first responders from across the metro sped to the scene of mass casualties and mayhem.
Those first to the accident would have to cut through a padlocked chain link gate on Federal Cartridge property in order to reach the victims. Meantime, firefighters raced to the calamity of burning rail cars and trapped passengers.
The training exercise is the culmination of nearly two years of planning to bring together such a large number of state, county and local agencies. It was made possible by the access to rail lines running through the secured property of Federal Cartridge in Anoka.
“The volunteers are in makeup with cards describing their injuries. And we’re working with local hospitals so that the victims are transported as if it’s a real event,” said ATK/Federal Cartridge spokesman Tim Brandt.
Responders were being scored on how quickly and effectively they triaged the victims while firefighters from surrounding departments extinguished flames. Hazardous materials crews were confronted with a large cloud of chemicals leaking from a tanker car to further complicate the exercise.
“It’s a great way to train for the worst-case scenario,” explains Anoka Police Chief Phil Johanson, adding that the large amount of advance planning was to ensure the drill was as realistic and meaningful as possible. “This is a chance for police, fire and EMS to respond and to really have the skills for what they would do if they had a big situation like this where 150 people needed help.”
That meant making sure that all radios and communication systems work, the response was well coordinated and that enough outside help could be brought in.
Exercise observers were scoring the reaction of first responders for their effectiveness and speed, and an extensive debriefing will take place to go over the wins and losses of the drill.
“If something big were to happen, we want to make sure we are able to know how to use it and be ready to use it,” said Johanson.