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Columbia airport conducts mandatory fire drill

Thursday, September 23, 2010 | 10:58 p.m. CDT; updated 2:11 p.m. CDT, Friday, September 24, 2010
Firefighters extinguish a simulated fire on the Mobile Aircraft Firefighting Trainer on a runway on Thursday at Columbia Regional Airport. Several burns were conducted on the unit to represent different crash and rescue scenarios.

COLUMBIA — Diana Staub was eight months pregnant. Her right arm was covered in blood, but she could still walk.

She was one of the lucky ones.

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"It was very surreal," she said. "The sun was setting and (I was) looking out and seeing everyone dead in the field."

Staub, a junior at MU, was one of many volunteers who participated in Columbia Regional Airport's emergency drill Thursday evening. She played the role of a contaminated individual who had to go through a decontamination process before paramedics could get her to the hospital.

"I don't have any abdominal pain, so the baby's OK," she said with a laugh.

"Our goal down here ... is to play the role that we would normally play in the event of a real emergency," said Steven Sapp, Battalion Chief with the Columbia Fire Department.

The drill was a simulated emergency in which a 50-passenger airplane crashed in the middle of a field. About 35 individuals had either died or were injured, and 19 agencies responded, including the Boone and Columbia fire departments, University Hospital and The Salvation Army.

"In order to be a certified airport with passenger service you must have this type of drill every three years," said Don Elliott, Columbia Regional Airport manager.

Airports that provide service to commercial airplanes with 30 passengers or more have been required to hold these drills since 1980. Columbia Regional Airport did not offer service to airplanes that size until 2008, when the airport acquired Delta Air Lines, making this its first major drill since 2002. Elliott said the drill cost about $6,000.

The equipment used to simulate the fire was a mobile aircraft firefighting trainer, or MAFT. Mark Lee, aircraft, hazardous material and industrial program manager, said MAFT is housed at the MU Fire Rescue and Training Institute. The aviation division of the Missouri Department of Transportation purchased it in 2001 for $1.2 million. It's also one of just four aircraft simulators in the nation and travels across the United States for similar training drills.

When the drill started, MAFT stood in an empty field, already charred and covered in soot from repeated use. In seconds, waves of flame engulfed the simulated aircraft while the firefighters battled the blaze. It burned for less than a minute before jets of water extinguished the flames.

"It gives us an opportunity for our firefighters to experience an airplane or aircraft fire," said Gale Blomenkamp, public information officer for the Boone County Fire Protection District, of the fire simulator. They ran the drill several times for all the firefighters to have an opportunity to battle the flames.

Once the flames were out, people entered the aircraft. The interior was filled with blackened steel and sooty seats. Closer to the front of the aircraft, a charred dummy sat huddled in the corner and looked alarmingly lifelike.

"In a scenario, this is about as real as we can make it by getting all these people in play, all the multijurisdictional people together," Blomenkamp said. "If this was a real event, it would be this group of people you see out here."

At the end of the day, though, this was only a drill.

"And we would like to keep it that way," Sapp said.


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