PUEBLO COUNTY, Colo. — A school bus accident is bad enough but add to the mix a tanker truck full of hazardous chemicals well outside of the city but in an area with large numbers of workers and parked cars.
Oh, and throw in an explosion of weapons containing half-century-old mustard agent sending a plume of deadly gas across the prairie.
That was the scenario presented Wednesday morning to just about every emergency agency in Pueblo County.
Fortunately, the mustard agent accident was mostly virtual but the school bus-tanker truck accident involved a more realistic setup on the grounds of an airport industrial park plant where such an accident could really happen.
It was the annual Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program exercise, giving local agencies a chance to test their ability to work together and respond to an emergency. Federal funds are provided to communities like Pueblo that have chemical weapons stockpiles to set up response systems. As Wednesday’s exercise showed, that preparedness extends beyond just accidents at the Pueblo Chemical Depot.
At the Emergency Operations Center in the basement of the Pueblo County Judicial Building, representatives from a number of agencies worked to coordinate the local response to both the school bus accident and the event at the chemical depot.
At the industrial park, 43 firefighters, emergency medical specialists and hazardous materials experts arrived at the KMG Electrical Chemicals plant on William White Boulevard to handle the emergency.
KMG bought Air Products Inc. high purity process chemicals business last fall. The Pueblo plant originally was built by Ashland Chemical which sold it to Air Products. It produces purified chemicals used in the computer chip fabrication industry.
The scenario Wednesday was that a tanker carrying a 49 percent solution of hydrofluoric acid was turning off of William White Boulevard into the plant when it was sideswiped by a school bus, the impact puncturing the tank and spewing acid onto the bus and inside.
Rather than tie up the street, the intersection was marked off in the KMG parking area, including red painted lines that delineated a nearby gully for the responders to consider as they controlled the leak.
Volunteers recruited from Civil Air Patrol members, area high school students, KMG employees and others played the role of passengers.
Some were injured and the ambulatory ones were led to fire trucks where they undressed down to bathing suits and underwent “gross decontamination,” being sprayed with fire hoses.
They then moved through a series of tents where decontamination continued and victims were triaged according to their injuries.
Hydrofluoric acid, used to etch computer chips by KMG’s customers, can cause serious injury. If it penetrates the skin, it can even cause bone damage.
At one point two of the ambulatory victims ran back out of the first tent, following a script calling for the reaction, and firefighters had to restrain them, calm them and get them back into the tent.
When the injured victims were removed, they had to deal with a distraught mother whose daughter was still in the bus and interfering with the transport of one of the victims.
Officials even had to deal with mock questions from reporters later in the day.
Participating in Wednesday’s exercise were the Pueblo Fire Department, Pueblo West Fire Department, Pueblo County Rural Fire Department, the State Patrol, KMG’s own hazardous material team, the Pueblo County Sheriff’s Department, Pueblo Police Department, Rye Fire Department, AMR ambulance and others.
Federal Emergency Management Administration officials also were there, including chief evaluator Bill George, a retired Texas police chief along with 23 expert evaluators.
George said that there would be a debriefing after the exercise and in 60 days, local agencies would get a draft of the evaluation.
Incident Commander William Nemick, Pueblo assistant fire chief, was in charge of the operation. He said that the main purpose was to learn how well agencies can work together, “who can do what and when.”