The death toll mounted quickly as neighborhoods were evacuated, traffic on Indiana 930 halted and a shelter was set up at Paul Harding High School after a chlorine gas leak Saturday.
That was the scenario that played out at Brenntag, an international chemical distribution company on Estella Avenue, during a local disaster drill Saturday morning. About 300 first responders, volunteers and observers participated in the three-hour drill.
State and federal laws require public safety agencies to run live scenarios that deal with an environmental or chemical disaster every two years.
These “Right to Know” laws require businesses to report any chemicals or hazardous materials to local fire departments and that those departments know how to respond in the event of a release or spill, said Tony Burrus, Allen County safety/environmental director.
In addition to the chlorine release, responders were met with a shooter inside the business for this drill.
During the exercise, a dozen people were killed either from exposure to chlorine gas or gunshots. Several others were injured by the shooter inside the chemical business.
Many of the “dead” came from attendees at a family picnic that was happening behind Brenntag at neighboring Do It Best Corp.
Brenntag had a minor hazardous-materials episode about a month ago. Afterward, company officials offered to work with local public safety officials to coordinate the drill, said Chuck Lake, spokesman for the New Haven-Adams Township Fire and EMS.
Several company employees participated in the drill while corporate staff observed and critiqued how they responded.
Employees are the first line of defense in minimizing any spills or releases, said Kevin Bagin, vice president of operations for Brenntag Great Lakes.
But during Saturday’s training, several of those employees were injured or killed in the shooting that kicked off the drill.
New Haven police were called to the building for a report of the shooting at 9 a.m. The department’s Emergency Response Team, also known as a SWAT team, was called in because the shooter was still in the building, officers were told.
But team members accidentally “killed” the shooter and one of their own officers when someone hit a trip wire that set off a fake bomb, team commander Sgt. Denny Kunkel said.
“It was a learning experience; some mistakes were made,” Kunkel said, noting that’s what the training is for.
The detonated bomb, one of several faux bombs at the scene, supposedly released enough chlorine gas that, had it been an real event, many New Haven neighborhoods south and west of the Estella-Nelson industrial area would have been evacuated or residents told to remain indoors.
And a large stretch of Indiana 930 would have been closed to traffic, said Susan Banta, spokeswoman for the Fort Wayne Fire Department, which handles hazardous materials calls county-wide.
A shelter would have been set up at Paul Harding High School for residents. Norfolk-Southern trains that pass on either side of Brenntag would have stopped running in the event of a real emergency, Lake said.
Firefighters and police officers participating knew there would be a drill on Estella on Saturday, but they didn’t know what the scenario would be until it unraveled before them, Kunkel said.
“There were a lot of things going on in 10 different directions,” he said of the complex drill, adding that he wished they could run similar exercises more often.
It looked like a real emergency, but what unfolded was an emergency drill for all of Allen County's emergency responders. If you would've been there, you'd have seen police with guns drawn, victims being loaded into ambulances, and shaken witnesses being led away from the scene.
For first responders, the situation was very real. The scenario played out inside chemical storage company, Brenntag on Estella Avenue in New Haven.
"Coming into [the drill] we knew very little," explained Denny Kunkel, with the New Haven Police Department. "We did know the location. We did know the time frame of the scenario."
Other than that, officers had to quickly assess the situation on the scene. The set-up involved a mock shooter and multiple victims. Things escalated with a gas leak and explosion. That caused hazardous materials teams to be called in.
After the exercise was complete, observers and participants debriefed with an evaluation.
"Obviously, its a learning experience for everybody," said Chuck Lake, with the New Haven Fire Department. "We found a few areas of fault on our part, a few areas of fault within the system itself."
Those are lessons that can now be used in a real situation, when it may actually be a matter of life and death.
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