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Exercise aims to prepare for disaster

Students are "victims" in the county's annual drill for emergency agencies and hospitals to treat a large number of wounded.

TAMARA LUSH
Published May 1, 2003

TAMPA - Dozens of teenagers with fake bruises, false gashes and faux bloody gauze draped themselves around Cruise Terminal 3 at the Port of Tampa on Wednesday.

Some lay on the asphalt, twitching. Others propped themselves against concrete posts. A boy and a girl with head wounds snuggled with each other, while nearby, a guy with pink, spiky hair picked at his fake arm lesion.

Then, a half-dozen burly guys in blue chemical suits, gas masks and black helmets ran over, gripping rifles.

As if on cue, the teens started moaning.

Ahh, the signs of spring: singing robins, fragrant jasmine and Hillsborough County's annual mass casualty exercise.

It was the 31st such drill, organized by the emergency management offices from Hillsborough County and Tampa.

The goal is to test the ability of emergency workers and hospitals to be able to receive and treat large numbers of wounded people.

While it may be instructive for the firefighters, police, sheriff's deputies, Coast Guardsmen, port authorities and paramedics, it's downright exciting for the 675 students from Tampa Bay Tech who volunteered to be the "casualties."

For one, they get out of school for the day.

And, "It's cool to be able to help," said Billie Kegley, 16. "It's also kind of cool knowing what will happen in a disaster."

In previous years, the training scenarios have frequently been plane crashes, bus crashes and one crop duster accident.

But this year's scenario was ripped from the headlines: a simulated terrorist attack using a chemical weapon of mass destruction, just as people are sailing from the port on a cruise ship.

"Many are injured and several are killed," a printed flier read. "Many casualties who appear to be lightly injured suddenly begin to have breathing problems. Some appear to be coated with a powdery substance."

Some 500 students were bused to 14 hospitals throughout the county to test the mettle of emergency rooms.

At the port, emergency workers took the giggling students through each step: evaluation, decontamination and treatment.

The critically injured at the cruise terminal were "treated" at the triage site. The ones with lesser injuries waited to be bused to a makeshift hospital - a tent at the county fairgrounds.

"We're the walking wounded," said 18-year-old Isis Persad, who had a simulated wrist wound.

She was in the bathroom when the team of blue-suited officials - the "Rapid Reconnaissance Team" in emergency-speak - stormed the terminal. Her friend, Billie Kegley, was waiting outside.

"When people came up with guns, it was like, pretty scary," said Kegley.

- Tamara Lush can be reached at 226-3373 or at lush@sptimes.com

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