EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — It was a nightmare scenario that rivaled the plot of a Hollywood disaster film.
The simulated sequence of catastrophic events began at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, when a military fighter jet plunged into the ocean 15 miles off the New Jersey coast. The pilot safely ejected and was plucked from the water by a Coast Guard helicopter, but the chopper crashed into a Federal Aviation Administration plane while attempting to land at Atlantic City International Airport.
Bodies of the dead and injured were pulled from the smoking wreckage.
Fortunately, it was all make-believe. No one was really killed or injured. No collisions really happened. It was an elaborate disaster drill that tested the resources and responses of the military and government agencies based at the airport.
“We’re trying to make it as realistic as possible for everybody,” said Lt. Matthew Kroll, a Coast Guard helicopter pilot who briefed the media as the drill unfolded during a bone-chilling February morning.
Authorities labeled the drill a complete success. Although the “disaster” was left to everyone’s imagination, the training exercise helped hone the skills of the airport’s rescue crews and will better prepare them for the possibility of a real-life catastrophe, officials stressed.
“Right now, we’re doing a fantastic job,” Capt. Peter Mingo, commanding officer of the Coast Guard’s Air Station Atlantic City, said in a preliminary assessment of the drill.
Joining the Coast Guard were the FAA, the New Jersey Air National Guard 177th Fighter Wing and the South Jersey Transportation Authority’s airport firefighting unit.
Kroll noted that rescue efforts during large-scale disasters typically involve multiple agencies, so the drill was another way for military and government authorities to improve their collaboration.
Col. Kerry Gentry, commanding officer of the 177th Fighter Wing, called the drill “invaluable” for building a stronger relationship among all the agencies.
Headed by the Coast Guard, the drill was the largest of its type since the Coast Guard opened its base at Atlantic City International Airport in 1998. Officials said the frigid weather added to the realism.
“These incidents typically happen in the worst weather,” Gentry said.
Once the drill was underway, a convoy of airport fire and rescue trucks, lights flashing, rushed across the airfield to extinguish the flames and pull bodies from the wreckage. The pseudo casualties included one dead and four others who suffered severe injuries.
Coast Guard officials said they have to prepare for full-fledged disasters as part of their mission. The Coast Guard’s Air Station Atlantic City uses a fleet of MH-65D Dolphin helicopters to make rescues along the coastline and out to sea.
Just last week, the Coast Guard airlifted an 84-year-old cruise passenger to the hospital after she had fallen and injured her hip while her ship was traveling off the New Jersey coast. The Coast Guard said training was key in making the cruise-ship rescue.
“This case is a great example of how Coast Guard training has a real-world impact,” said Lt. Marc McDonnell, the helicopter commander during the rescue.
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