Participants take part in the 2009 Mass Rescue Exercise in Ketchikan on April 28. The exercise presented a scenario where a cruise ship with more than 2,500 passengers and crew aboard was involved in a major incident requiring the evacuation of the ship.

By Kate Golden

Screw up the head count, and the rescue fails. In 2006, a British Columbia ferry sank, and two people were not accounted for; they died on the ship. Counting people is the hardest part of the rescue – but also the most important.

Rescuers enacted one of the largest mass rescue training exercises of its kind in Ketchikan in April. Led by U.S. Coast Guard District 17 in Juneau, participants were to count, keep track of and offer safety to 2,501 passengers who had been evacuated from a grounded cruise ship. They also had to assess the damage, start cleaning up the oil, figure out costs, respond to reporters and communicate with Juneau and Seattle command posts – among other problems.

“You’re going to fight for those numbers, you’re going to want those numbers immediately, but they’re not going to be there,” said Coast Guard Lieutenant Rick Janelle, a leader in the drill.

The scenario: A Holland America Line cruise ship has a switchboard explosion and grounds on rocks 28 miles from Ketchikan. About 57,000 gallons of oil leaks out and immediately heads for beaches and seabirds. The coordination is a big challenge. This faux disaster, even without a real cruise ship or containment boom, took a year and more than 500 people to plan.

The U.S. Coast Guard took the lead, but Holland America Line, various State of Alaska departments, the Canadian Coast Guard, the National Transportation Safety Board, the city of Ketchikan and others played parts.

Holland’s involvement was a gamble for the company, according to U.S. Coast Guard Captain Mike Inman, who led the exercise. If it didn’t go well, that could be a huge public-relations gaffe.

But Holland senior vice president of operations Daniel Grausz, who deals with other Holland emergencies when they happen, said an exercise on this scale was invaluable. Accidents happen, he said: A few years ago a ship switchboard exploded just out of Vancouver, just like in the scenario. Everyone was fine – but the situation might have been far worse had the ship been farther from port.

“It’s worth every penny you spend on it, in learning your own capabilities and the what-ifs,” Grausz said.

More than 160 people volunteered to play passengers, many of them injured and done up in gory moulage. Those 160 were playing everybody on the ship, meaning some of them had quite an extensive invisible entourage, as volunteer Johanna Hubbard explained.

She was playing eight people. The simulation went so far that when buses shuttling passengers were filled to capacity, they sometimes only appeared to have 10 people on them, because the rest were there in name only.

“They’ve done an awesome job in their detailing,” said David Fisher, port director for Prince Rupert, who was playing one of the passengers.

That was comforting, because “every cruise ship that comes to Alaska passes by our front door,” he said.

Drills are common, but one this size was of national significance. The last time the Coast Guard did something on this scale was 2007 in Florida; the leaders here had read the old action reports and were hoping not to repeat any mistakes. Observers from all over, including Singapore, were at the scene.

“We tried to think of all the big things and the little things,” said Steve Corporon, Ketchikan port director.

Volunteers had some downtime in the morning. Rosemary Svenson, 15, had been issued a baby. According to the triage cards each was wearing, the baby was in much worse shape than the mother.

The real trouble began when the lifeboats hit the dock. The passengers began to howl, moan, or stare amnesiacally at the wall, depending on how they’d been coached. On the boat full of teenagers from a Ketchikan High School medical science class, the acting was particularly showboaty. Some took the loud route, but Svenson became the “Despairing Mother,” clutching her child to her.

Some of the “victims” ended up at the hospital, and others went to a rec center. They sat in basketball courts with pink ribbons around their necks, being told their next options.

Like in a real-life disaster, they did a lot of waiting. Unlike real life, most people in this exercise did not wander off, and they tended to be agreeable and docile.

“Do we get food?” volunteer Richard Monrean, stuck on a boat, asked his wife.

“We have to get rescued first,” said Sharon Monrean, smiling.

There were some gaps in the plan, which is why they were testing it out. For instance, it turns out that the Ketchikan airport’s one-lane federal security screening isn’t set up to handle hundreds of people at a time. It would be a major bottleneck as passengers tried to get out. The team figured a way around, sending passengers from one “nonsterile” airport to another, and now they know to plan for that. And there were other snafus, including one involving 60 cards-representing-people that were temporarily lost.

At the end-of-day debrief, Capt. Inman urged them to air their mistakes, because that’s how you learn. Most did not. At least not right then. They seemed tired and quick to congratulate each other. After all, they had achieved their main objective of counting everyone. One person who was struck by a piano died, 48 were injured, but none of that was in real life.

“Nobody got hurt today, except for a little pinched finger on the Canadian Coast Guard,” said Corparon.

By the time the exercise was halted, four tugs had refloated the ship, and plans were afoot to bring it to Ketchikan temporarily.

“You could play this out for another week,” said Inman.

Source: Juneau Empire

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