First responders and aviation officials conducted an emergency exercise at the airport in Grand Cayman on Thursday, simulating a cargo plane carrying hazardous chemicals overshooting the runway after its brakes failed and crashing into two occupied vehicles driving on a nearby road.
The Boeing 727-200 skidded to a stop in the cricket field a few hundred yards from Owen Roberts International Airport before the scenario saw rescue personnel descend on the scene to treat 15 injured people – six of whom were on board the plane – and contain a dangerous chemical spill.
Moments after the drill began, responders in plastic hazardous materials suits doused a small area with fire-suppressing foam next to the aircraft – a yellow school bus for the purposes of the exercise – before climbing into the burning fuselage to search for victims. Firefighters in full equipment later could be seen carrying injured people from the accident scene to a nearby safe staging area where they received immediate medical attention.
Police cordoned off the area along Bobby Thompson Way and Crewe Road, halting incoming and outgoing traffic, while ambulance crews and the Cayman Islands Red Cross waited nearby to respond.
The two-hour long exercise, code named “Operation – Clean Sweep”, was overseen by the Cayman Islands Airports Authority in conjunction with local authorities and Hazard Management Cayman Islands. Events similar to this are required of airports to meet ongoing international aviation standards and safety obligations, while also serving to test the ability of first responders to enact an airport’s emergency readiness plan.
Owen Roberts International Airport remained open for normal operations during the exercise.
“This is the airports authority testing their plan, but in testing their plan it includes the relative response agencies to assist in a collaborated effort where something like this, if it ever occurred, we would be required to work together to have this carried out,” said Ian Yearwood, an inspector with the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service.
“I would say it was a success. We had all the agencies working together, communicating well together today in seeing through that goal – to minimise risk to any other potential persons and to see that the persons who are injured receive immediate medical attention.”
Authorities also simulated the clean up, transport and disposal of the hazardous chemicals. Officials said in the wake of an accident such as this, the scene would be secured, evidence preserved and an investigation follow suit.
Thursday’s full-scale exercise on the cricket field came one week after the airports authority hosted a contingent of government and emergency response officials during a tabletop exercise in a conference room inside the authority’s headquarters at the airport. A full-scale exercise, such as the one conducted Thursday, differs from a tabletop exercise because in a full-scale exercise, an accident scene is staged, personnel and equipment are deployed and volunteers simulate victims.
“Operation Clean Sweep was our most successful exercise ever in terms of coordination of emergency services and actions in the field,” said Andrew McLaughlin, senior manager, CIAA Safety Management Systems. “This exercise is critical to ensure that the airport is poised to respond in the event of a real aircraft accident and allows all participating emergency agencies to test their readiness, which will be critical in the preservation of lives as well as to minimise damage to property.”
Participating in the exercise was an assortment of personnel from the airport rescue and firefighting services, emergency medical technicians and airline representatives, as well as local police and officials from the departments of health and environment.
The airports authority is not unique in conducting emergency preparedness drills. In recent weeks, authorities in Grand Cayman have also overseen a drill simulating a cruise ship disaster in the harbour in George Town and undertaken its annual hurricane season readiness initiatives.