Let’s Put on an Air Disaster Drill!

Playing disaster


in Archive


Thursday, June 9 was an active night at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, as it was both Parmesan night at the airport’s Italian restaurant and the air disaster drill for the airport at large.

The Arnold Palmer Regional Airport lies 40 miles east of Pittsburgh and more than 60 miles east of Pittsburgh International Airport in a small town of 8,338. From Pittsburgh International, travelers can make direct flights to New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Toronto, Cancun, and Paris. From Arnold Palmer, travelers can fly directly to either Fort Lauderdale or Myrtle Beach on Spirit Airlines, and only to either Fort Lauderdale or Myrtle Beach, and only on a Monday, Wednesday, Friday, or Saturday.

I learned about the airport’s air disaster drill from a friend who traveled through Latrobe and saw a flier calling for volunteers to play air disaster victims. The flier was decorated with a clip-art illustration of an airplane. It said the airport was looking for 150 volunteers, and that they should wear clothing that could get dirty. My friend thought disaster drill training at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport would be right up my alley, and it was. Miniatures speak to many people: Some people like model railroads, some like dollhouses, some like baby animals. I like scaled-down versions of places you’re not used to seeing scaled-down. I’m drawn to tiny zoos, regional department stores, and restaurant chains with only three actual restaurants. These kinds of public institutions and commercial enterprises sit at the very bottom of hierarchies dominated by corporate and civic giants; but what sits at the bottom helps define what lies above. That Pittsburgh has an airport is such a forgone conclusion that the airport itself almost fades away as a place and becomes instead an interface between Pittsburgh and some other place. That Latrobe has an airport is so unexpected it makes you stop and think about what it means to be an airport.

I registered to be an air disaster drill volunteer on the airport’s website about a week before the drill. A few days later, I received an email written entirely in Comic Sans font that included release forms and asked me to report to the airport at 5:30 p.m. the day of the drill. When June 9 finally came around, I was ready in clothes that could get dirty. Airport parking can be difficult, of course, so I made sure to arrive early. But parking at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport is as painless as parking at a supermarket. The airport has one parking lot, and it’s just in front of the terminal’s entrance. So by 5:00 I had arrived and parked, and was then standing by the airport’s front door at a statue of Arnold Palmer, who grew up a mile away.

Volunteer victims were told to check in at the airport’s ticket counter — this was a Thursday, and the counter wasn’t being used for actual ticketing. I gave my name and release form to a woman behind the counter, and she gave me an index card with a number written in magic marker on it and a white T-shirt that said “2011 Arnold Palmer Regional Airport Disaster Drill — Latrobe PA” in red and blue fonts. I was number 5.

With an hour to spare, I decided to wait in the airport’s only restaurant, DeNunzio’s. Most airport bars and restaurant operate behind the TSA security checkpoint and are therefore only open to ticketed passengers who have already gone through security. But  DeNunzio’s is open to the nonflying public, who can walk right in through the airport’s waiting area.

DeNunzio’s was slow this Thursday at 5:00. Most of the tables overlooking the airport runway were empty. I sat in the Sinatra Bar — which has a mock-up of Frank Sinatra’s dressing room in an alcove near the top of the room — and had a beer. I don’t eat meat, so I ordered French fries, which were the only thing not-meat on the menu, and watched news coverage of the Casey Anthony trial on the bar’s TV.

A few minutes before 6:00, I went back to the airport’s lobby, whose teal seats had since filled with people in clothes that could get dirty. A man appeared behind the ticket counter and yelled out that numbers 1 through 12 should follow him to a school bus in the parking lot. We were going to be playing dead bodies, he said. I thought this sounded like one of the best roles you could expect to get as a volunteer at an air disaster drill.

On the bus, I sat next to a woman who had been a drill volunteer before. She told me that she played an injured person in the past. That time, organizers told her she might even ride in a helicopter, but that never happened. The bus drove us all through a gate in the fence surrounding the airport’s runways and to a large metal building. We got off and a man handed each of us a small piece of paper with an injury listed. Mine said, “Steel Rod Impaled in RUQ. A through and through penetration. Unconscious.” Other victims suffered from “Head trauma. Brain matter is visible.”

We stood around for a few minutes before the man who told us to get off the bus realized we were in the wrong spot and told us to get back on. The bus drove to a runway that ran along the main road to the airport. Cars had parked along the side of the road and people were standing along the fence. I saw a row of fire trucks in the distance; they were each painted a different color to represent different volunteer fire companies. When my group got off the bus a second time, we were told to spread out in the grass along the runway and sit down. This was the only instruction I would receive in how to play a dead body for the air disaster drill.

The grass along the runway was about a foot high. I found a spot and lay down on the ground, which was still wet from an afternoon rain storm. I stayed down in the grass for about 10 minutes. It was nice, looking up at the sky at dusk on an early summer day. The rain brought out some brown slugs and snails the size of pencil erasers. I watched them climb up and across long blades of grass while I waited for someone to come find my body.

Nobody came in those 10 minutes. Eventually, all 12 dead bodies sat up to see what was happening. After about a half an hour, a plane at the end of the runway was set on fire and trucks labeled Arnold Palmer Regional Airport rushed over to put it out. After they left, the plane was reignited, and the fire trucks I had seen in the distance drove up.

We sat in the grass for about an hour before three people came over to our area. I didn’t know what to do. Was lying down to mimic an actual dead body too much? Would sitting up undermine the training potential of the drill? The 11 other bodies didn’t seem to know what to do, either. About half lay down, and about half sat up. One woman just stood.

I decided to split the difference and lay on my back but hold myself up with my arms. When the three rescuers came over, a man took the paper from my hand and read my condition to a woman who wrote the information in a notebook. A second man took pictures, and the first put a small orange flag that said “Evidence” next to my body. He used a walkie-talkie on his shoulder to request medics and describe my location. The person on the other end had to keep telling him to push the button, pause, and only then start speaking, because the first words he was saying kept getting cut off.

Medics eventually came over. One picked up my piece of paper. “This one doesn’t need medics,” he said to the man who had called for medics. “He’s dead. See? His stats are all zero and it says ‘Asystole.’”

I later learned that “asystole” meant my heart had no electrical activity. This back-and-forth wasn’t part a training portion of the drill — no air disaster victim is ever going to land on the ground holding a piece of paper listing his vital stats — but instead a sorting out of drill logistics. The team that found me read “unconscious” on my paper and thought I needed medics, when they were supposed to practicing how to deal with a bunch of dead bodies.

Dead-body training back on track, a bunch of men on ATVs came over to our area of the runway. One parked an ATV pulling a body sled on a trailer right by head. He left the ATV idling while he went over to talk with the other ATV drivers for a few minutes, and then came back.

“Well, you can either get on the trailer or on the ATV,” he told me. “Your choice.”

Another air disaster victim volunteer dilemma: Was the body sled too dramatic? Was riding the ATV too unhelpful? He didn’t seem to care so I got on the ATV and he drove me about 30 feet to the edge of the runway.

A baggage cart with three trailers was parked on the runway. The man driving the cart told four of us to lay down in one of them. Dead bodies laid down in the others and a photographer from the local newspaper came over to take our picture. Once we were loaded, the driver took us back to a large metal shed where the airport keeps its emergency vehicles. There, volunteers stood around giant trash cans filled with bottled water and tables with small bags of potato chips. Kids handed out turkey and Italian subs. I took a bag of potato chips and stood around with the other volunteers for a few minutes. To leave, we walked back toward the runway and terminal, and then through the gate in the fence. We could have walked right out on the runway if we had wanted, or up to the boarding gates, which is a freedom you don’t expect to have at an airport.

The air disaster drill at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport ended up feeling as if it was half about learning what to do in an air disaster, and half about figuring out what to do in an air disaster drill. I suppose that shouldn’t come as a surprise. On its website, Arnold Palmer touts the easy parking I experienced: “you won’t need a bus to take you back to your car after you land.” But it continues: “Throw in some features you won’t find elsewhere – like free parking, short screening lines and a fast baggage claim — and you’ll see convenience and comfort levels are higher here than you might have expected.” You don’t often encounter promotional text that explicitly anticipates low expectations among customers. Maybe the airport knows that as a small airport reliant on volunteers for safety, things can go wrong, which is why they have drills in the first place.

A few days after volunteering to play a dead body at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport, I learned that Fred “Mr.” Rogers also hails from Latrobe. That the airport is named for Palmer and not Rogers makes sense: Palmer was both a pilot and, as a golfer, a symbol of good living in warm places with lots of sunshine. Arnold Palmer would have liked that the people of Latrobe can easily leave southwestern Pennsylvania for Fort Lauderdale or Myrtle Beach, where they might enjoy iced tea mixed with lemonade. But I think a neighborhood guy like Mr. Rogers would have liked the Latrobe airport itself. I can see him being proud to wear his white disaster drill T-shirt and not noting that his email confirmation was written in Comic Sans and — as a vegetarian — enjoying French fries at DeNunzio’s and eating potato chips with other volunteers.

Yes, Arnold Palmer Regional Airport is small and modest. It doesn’t have a Hudson News stand or duty-free perfume or giant massaging easy chairs. It doesn’t have flights to Vegas or Cancun or Paris. But Arnold Palmer resonates in a way that an airport in Pittsburgh or Vegas of Cancun of Paris never can. A small airport like Arnold Palmer embodies both the reality of where you are, and your hopes for where you’d like to be — a duality that probably speaks to more than just the 8,338 people of Latrobe, Pennsylvania.

A few days after the drill, I received an email thanking me for volunteering. It said it hoped I found the experience enlightening. My participation was extremely important for the airport, as was that of all volunteers. “The response we received this year was outstanding — the most participants ever,” the email read. “Again, we thank you and hope to see you again in 2014 when we do this all over again!” • 21 June 2011