Authorities train for airport emergencies

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By Robbie Ward

Daily Journal

TUPELO – Visitors touring the Tupelo Regional Airport on Saturday stared as if they’d never seen a work release bus carrying a group of zombie nursing students to a pretend terrorist attack.

Inside the bus, a dozen or so Itawamba Community College nursing students looked like extras from a zombie film set as they rode the bus normally used to chauffeur inmates. They wore ripped T-shirts with fake blood, some dripping from their foreheads.

Before arriving at the airplane used for the day’s training exercise, the students chatted and snapped photos of each other with iPhones.

“We really don’t know if we’ll die or just get shot,” said Kristan Ledlow, 23, studying to work as a licensed practical nurse.

Tupelo Police Department’s SWAT team, Tupelo Fire Department and ICC nursing students spent a few hours at the airport as part of an airport emergency exercise required by the Federal Aviation Administration every three years.

“This is real world and responsive to let us practice so we’ll be prepared,” said Joshua Abramson, the airport’s executive director.

Emergency exercises happened in two phases – the first at the main airport terminal and the second on an airplane. Volunteers dressed for their parts to make the situation as realistic as possible as police and emergency rescue workers faced situations involving bomb explosions and terrorists.

Inside the airplane, SWAT team members shot paint-ball-like pellets toward a hijacker during the simulation as the college students held their hands over their heads.

Forty-five minutes earlier, fake blood-covered bodies lined the floors in the airport’s main terminal and security scanning area. After SWAT team members with M-16s and other weapons stormed and cleared the area of danger, emergency workers checked for survivors.

“Are you alive?” a triage responder said.

“I’m dead,” the volunteer said.

Throughout the role-playing situations, Abramson and others used small video cameras to film the SWAT team entering the airport with bulletproof shields and chasing after suspects, as well as emergency workers and those carrying suspicious packages.

For a community still stinging from an actual crisis situation, the exercise provided local authorities with an opportunity to train for unknown risks. A bank robber shot two Tupelo Police Department officers in December, killing one and wounding the other.

“We don’t ever know what we’ll ever face,” Tupelo Police Chief Bart Aguirre said, standing in the airport terminal lobby. “We’ve got to prepare for any and all circumstances.”

robbie.ward@journalinc.com