LINCOLN, Maine — The largest disaster drill in Lincoln in at least 15 years began Saturday with a scenario no one wants to see: two drag-racing vehicles at a train crossing slamming into Pan Am Railways freight cars carrying sodium hydroxide, officials said.
The scenario involved the “injury” of nine people and the death of two, the involvement of a half-dozen local fire departments and a chemical decontamination unit from Orono. Officials counted 75 participants at the “train wreck” on Depot Street and 60 emergency service responders and volunteers at Penobscot Valley Hospital of Lincoln.
“There are a lot of steps that are involved, or could be involved, in a hazmat situation,” Dan Summers, Lincoln public safety director, said Saturday. “It got everybody involved to look at the resources available to them in responding to a hazmat incident.”
Drill planning by Lincoln firefighters and Penobscot Valley Hospital Drs. David Shannon, David Dumont and the Penobscot Valley Hospital Safety Committee was so nuanced that two drill volunteers, 23-year-old Jacob Madden of Howland and 53-year-old Susan Brown of East Millinocket, wore heavy burn makeup.
Madden and Brown played workers at Lincoln Paper and Tissue LLC who witnessed the accident at Depot Street and were sprayed with the deadly chemical when they tried to help pull the victims from their vehicles, they said.
“With the train there, and the chemical cars, and the way people ‘treated’ everyone here [at the hospital], the drill was real in a lot of people’s eyes,” Brown said. “It could have been a real disaster.
“The way I saw that was the nurses running around, the doctors running around, doing [decontamination], setting up tents, scrubbing people down in the showers,” Brown said. “They came from everywhere.”
Hospital workers knew the drill was scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday, but those called in to handle the “emergency” stayed home to provide realistic response times. None were told beforehand of the kind of emergency they would be facing, Libby said.
The planners included “friends” and “relatives” of the “victims” who came to the scene and freaked out at seeing the damage, forcing firefighters to restrain them. A local newspaper reporter played his role, arriving at the scene and the hospital before the emergency cordons were set, collecting information until he was told to join the rest of the media being held back at Gold Star Cleaners at Clay and Main streets.
The Lac-Megantic train disaster, in which 47 people died when a runaway oil train derailed in the heart of a small Quebec town on July 6, 2013 — and several other train disasters that followed — was not the model that planners followed when they set the drill scenario, said Kristie Libby, a PVH spokeswoman.
The hospital planners focused more on what in Lincoln could be the basis of a large-scale disaster: the freight train tracks that parallel West Main Street and Broadway, the traffic that crosses them, and trains’ propensity for carrying hazardous materials, Libby and Summers said.
“It just happened that we picked a train that collides with a motor vehicle,” Summers said.
Burlington, East Millinocket, Howland, Lowell and Mattawamkeag were among the fire departments that participated, Summers said. Police blocked parts of Depot Street and all of Adams Street so firefighters could assemble.
The whine of sirens and collection of emergency vehicles startled some motorists unaware of the drill.
“What’s happening here?” one driver called out to a collection of news reporters at Gold Star Cleaners.
Madden and Brown were told to drive their own vehicles to the hospital and try to get as far into the hospital as possible as “contaminated” victims to test hospital workers’ ability to properly recognize and react to their injuries and contamination. The pair said the experience was fun.
Hospital workers responded to the two almost immediately. The pair was stopped at the emergency room nurses’ station and hustled outside to a hastily-constructed decontamination tent, where they were “washed” before being treated.
Madden and Brown were happy to learn their characters lived through the disaster, though both were “sent” to a burn hospital in Boston. The responders impressed Brown.
“I think the town of Lincoln would be ready if it was a real disaster. They just seemed to have everything together,” Brown said. “They knew what to do, when to do it. They really seemed to have a good handle on the situation.”