POTTSTOWN PA – A two-accident, multiple-vehicle pile-up reportedly “occurred” Thursday (May 23, 2013) at about 6:45 p.m., across a stretch of U.S. Route 422, with word that several occupants – some of them said to be seriously injured – were “trapped” inside overturned cars and vans.
It was supposed to have happened as most area residents enjoyed their dinners or watched the evening news; while Lower Pottsgrove commissioners met at the municipal building; while friends and foes of the Limerick Generating Station prepared for the day’s second hearing at Sunnybrook Ballroom on re-licensing of its nuclear power plants.
None of them heard emergency sirens. None witnessed the carnage.
Because there wasn’t any. The event was a staged practice exercise, held over a period of 2-1/2 hours in a long-vacant but expansive parking lot at the former Occidental Chemical property on Armand Hammer Boulevard in Lower Pottsgrove Township. For more than 60 volunteers of the Sanatoga, Limerick, North Coventry, Ringing Hill, Amity, and Linfield fire companies that were scheduled to attend, however, Thursday night’s mock accidents were deadly serious stuff.
“We’re all along the by-pass” that is 422, Sanatoga Fire’s Lt. Derek Dry said of the companies assembled at Occidental. “We’re all afraid that someday this scene is going to be real,” he said. “And we’ve got to be prepared for it,” Sanatoga Capt. Joe Oberholtzer II added a bit later.
The evening’s irony was that 422, under re-construction from east of Sanatoga to west of Stowe for up to the next seven years, was just a stone’s throw north of the parking lot. Passing motorists, many of them illegally speeding by at 60 mph or higher in lanes that are limited to no more 40 mph, probably paid little heed to the action in progress close by.
It was hard to miss, though. Tower lamps powered by portable generators set the parking lot ablaze with light as dusk and then night approached, and men and women buzzed about almost a dozen different pieces of apparatus that collectively cost several million dollars.
The companies had been divided between the two accident scenarios, complete with previously damaged cars provided by Sanatoga Auto Body Inc. and another donor. Dummy “bodies” and orange traffic cones, both of which were intended to represent humans in varying stages of distress, were strategically placed inside. The firefighters’ assignment: get them out, quickly and safely.
The volunteers at work were surprisingly quiet much of the time. Most conversations were between individuals in hushed tones, primarily because wielding power tools that can slice open a car’s roof or pry apart its doors requires intense concentration. At almost every vehicle, a supervisor or veteran stood watch; pointing out problems, making suggestions, offering tips to ensure the jobs were finished quickly and properly.
Humidity from the day’s earlier rain hung heavily in the air. All of the firefighters were dressed in full gear, just as they would have been for a real highway crisis. Despite a slight but nearly constant breeze, every one of them was dripping with sweat.
Many of their movements seemed unhurried; to an untrained eye, maybe even casual. That’s done purposefully, according to Sanatoga Fire Chief Rick Brendlinger. “Being slow here is deliberate,” he said. All of the companies involved “want their people to learn what’s necessary, and to make every minute count. They’d be less efficient if they were frantic or jumping around.”
“And if somebody makes a mistake, we want them to make it here,” Brendlinger noted, “because everyone learns from them. Better to make them here than out on the road.”
No matter how laid back the exercise may have looked, the chief reported, the “people” inside the twin mounds of crashed cars were “rescued” in only 28 minutes from start to finish. “Pretty good,” Brendlinger declared.
Dry and Oberholtzer – who were charged with setting up the practice, obtaining the vehicles, inviting the other companies to participate, creating the scenarios, and coordinating the action – said seeing firefighters from different teams work side-by-side may have been the best part of the night.
“We can never get enough training,” Oberholtzer said, “and training with other companies like this, the more we do the better we all get.”