Saturday, April 2, 2016

What I Learned Playing a Victim at an Airplane Crash

That's me, the drowned rat, laying on the ground in a hangar at Richmond International Airport as a CERT member (more about that HERE), volunteering as a victim in a plane disaster.

That picture was taken three hours + into the exercise. I was wet to the bone and shaking uncontrollably. Hubby snapped the picture just before I laid down on my place in the triage black zone. 

I was dead. They ticked off the black box on my triage badge, and they gave me a time of death. 


But still incredibly cold.

Let me tell you how I got to that spot on the floor. 

The morning of the event was warm. I knew I'd be outside -- but outside and too warm is just as bad as outside and too cold, so I changed into some lighter pants and layers. As the rain started in earnest, and the temperatures dropped considerably, I grabbed hubby's coat from  the back of the van. Thank goodness. It was my saving grace. 

The clothes you put on your character/soon-to-be-victim are incredibly important to their outcome. 


  • Cotton absorbs and wicks fluids. That means even if your shoes have been water proofed, you will have puddles inside your shoes from your cotton socks.
  • Wool is so much better - it wicks more slowly and even wet is warm
  • Fleece - My coat was lined in fleece. My pants transferred water up my legs to my shirt and everything under my waterproof coat was thoroughly saturated/wringing wet (including my bras, ladies -- just sayin'). BUT Where I was covered with the fleece I was warm enough.
  • While waterproof coats don't keep you dry underneath. What they do do is keep the wind off and help keep the fire foam at bay. 
  • Leather absorbs water  but seemed (from talking to fellow victims) to be a warmer more comfortable choice than tennis shoes. The fire fighter said tennis shoes would probably have melted in the fire. Erp.
  • Along those lines - according to USA Today travel tips - 

Stick to Natural Fabrics. Make sure your travel outfit is composed of natural fibers such as cotton, linen and wool. They are the some of the safest fabrics to have on in case of a fire. High heat melts synthetic fabrics such as nylon and polyester against your body, burning and blistering skin, while natural fibers turn to ash. Natural fabrics also keep you comfortable in normal flight situations, as these fabrics allow your skin to breathe, keeping you cool and comfortable in hot or humid conditions.
         Footwear -  Inappropriate footwear can pose major problems in the event of an evacuation. Open-toed or loose shoes such as flip-flops and other sandals can get caught on debris or wreckage or otherwise trip you up when you try to exit, and high heels can puncture escape slides. If you lose your shoes trying to escape the plane, you then are left with unprotected feet in an area that could be filled with sharp metal and other dangerous wreckage debris. Flat shoes or shoes with a low flat heel are ideal. Also make sure that the shoes you wear on the plane fit well, allowing you to be agile in an escape situation.

After our IDs were checked and we were bussed to the emergency site, we went through the procedures to find out our designated injury and stand in line to get moulaged (more about that HERE). 

This is what my assignment said:

Yup. My leg had been amputated in the accident. I went up for moulage to get in character. They held up the white face paint to make me "very pale" as per my designation and the makeup guy decided I was pale enough, he couldn't get me much paler. Nice.

They handed me my fake wound and sent me outside to the airplane.

Look at the picture just behind my head; there is a black square on the tarmac. That was a propane mat that they lit up as the fire crew raced to the scene. 

The fire fighters hosed the area down with water first. LOTS of water. LOTS and LOTS and LOTS of water. Then came the foam that burst from the ends of the hoses like a blizzard and suddenly the plane and everything around it looked like it was covered knee deep in snow.

A handful of us designated victims waded out to get on the plane. 


The plane was extremely small inside - it was only used for practice; it was much narrower than you would think. It was burned out and smelled thickly of smoke. When they shut the door, it was very dark. Imagine if you will, the injured splayed out all over the place, moaning, screaming, begging. You couldn't see and all you could smell was fire.

Yeah, it was a little much. 

I like to think of myself as a brave(ish) woman  - but I just couldn't. This scene lit all of my "flee! run!" hormones up. I had to get out of there. Even though this was a training scenario, my adrenaline spiked, and I was sweating and panicked. It was hard to breathe that air. I can't imagine the horror of just the trapped feeling in a real emergency. 

I did what any smart heroine would do given the chance. I stood up, opened the back door and called for a ladder. The fire fighter chuckled and said, "Yeah, it can feel pretty intense in there." 

Yup. Pretty intense.

Out I went to the tarmac. I lay on the ground with my foot tucked up under my hip and my fake amputation stump Velcro-ed in place. It was raining pretty steadily, and there was already a lake on the tarmac from the water hoses and the foam. I was glad my tag said I was sitting up - others weren't so lucky.

Getting the very last victims processed - photo from CERT FB page

So here's what I learned. 

  • There are a lot of people on a plane and so there are a lot of people who need help. You'll be laying there for a while - it's not going to go fast.
  • It's chaotic 
  • It's a carnival for the senses - the sights, sounds, smells, and sensations.
  • People are odd ducks. And personalities seem to be amplified in these scenarios.
  • It was 67 degrees - and it was FREEZING freaking cold. I can't imagine what it would be like in the winter in the rain/snow/and lower temperatures. The tarmac is exponentially the temperature of the day. (I did a bomb scenario at the hospital last summer, and we were out on the black surface with the temperatures in the high 80s. People weren't faring well - their skin was getting burned and blistering where they lay against the ground.)
  • The foam that they sprayed was odd. Very odd. It didn't go away like soap bubbles in your kitchen sink. It floats on top of the water and sticks to you - but doesn't pop right away. I'm still not sure how to get it out of my hair. I found the picture below on Wikipedia so you could see what I'm talking about.

Firefighters sprayed foam on structures in the Mammoth Hot Springs complex on September 10, 1988. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  • The backboards that they use to transfer you from one place to another are pretty narrow, and it feels like you're going to slide off. (I very much appreciated that the firefighters didn't grunt when they hefted me up.)The straps don't feel like they could stop you from falling - but that's a false sense. When I actually needed to sit up, my arms were secured down -- well, securely. Very securely.
  • One of my tasks was to only speak French to the rescuers. That was pretty funny. 
    • Each of the rescuers did the speaking louder and slower bit. But I stuck to it and only talked about "I can't find my husband; can you help me find my husband? I can't find my leg; can you help me find my leg?" and so forth. 
    • One guy tried to mime "lay down", but it came off as one of those Italian gestures for "up yours." Maybe a few more miming classes for the new recruits. . .  
    • One guy said in a very southern drawl, "Je ne parle pas francais, he he." (I don't speak French, he he) Then every few seconds, he'd look at me and ask, "Bien? (well?) he he." He was trying and obviously self-conscious - which was pretty sweet and much appreciated.
  • They put ribbons on our arms (or ankles) and fill out your triage tag:

A system that has been used in mass casualty situations is an example of advanced triage implemented by nurses or other skilled personnel. This advanced triage system involves a color-coding scheme using red, yellow, green, white, and black tags:

  • Red tags - (immediate) are used to label those who cannot survive without immediate treatment but who have a chance of survival.
  • Yellow tags - (observation) for those who require observation (and possible later re-triage). Their condition is stable for the moment and, they are not in immediate danger of death. These victims will still need hospital care and would be treated immediately under normal circumstances.
  • Green tags - (wait) are reserved for the "walking wounded" who will need medical care at some point, after more critical injuries have been treated.
  • White tags - (dismiss) are given to those with minor injuries for whom a doctor's care is not required.
  • Black tags - (expectant) are used for the deceased and for those whose injuries are so extensive that they will not be able to survive given the care that is available.
  • resource
  • As they got our colored tags on us, they got the ambulatory folks to walk inside. The rest of us were put on back boards or these carriers that looked like cots on very short legs. The fabric was a black mesh. They looked very comfortable and they kept those victims up out of the water stream. They moved us to stage for the ambulances. The red got the rescue squads first. So moving us was sort of like putting us in the taxi queue to wait our turn for the next rescue squad as they lined up to take their patient to the designated trauma hospitals.
  • Blankets didn't show up until the end of the exercise when actors started having ill-effects from the cold and wet. One lady was hypothermic. I imagined that blankets would slow down assessments, but at the same time, shock can be lethal. I suppose how it is handled at an actual emergency would depend on the actual emergency.
  • It was incredibly soothing on the scene to have an emergency worker talking to me. Calm friendly faces saying they are going to help really means something. At one point, a firefighter took off his coat and laid it over me to keep me warm. He had to grab it back all to soon when someone else was in worse shape than I was. But that he put himself in the wet weather for my comfort was meaningful to me, and I thanked him later.  That the rescuer attempted to speak French when he obviously couldn't was meaningful. The cop who figured out that I was miming and asking for my husband, and told me they would take good care of him, and we would be together soon, while he squeezed my thigh to keep me from bleeding out? Meaningful. Small gestures made by your heroes will make vivid memories (good or bad is up to you) for your character. And I would say from a psych POV make a big difference in the victim's recovery as well.

 A huge thank you to the professionals who keep us safe!

And as always, a big thank you ThrillWriters and readers for stopping by. Thank you, too, for your support. When you buy my books, you make it possible for me to continue to bring you helpful articles and keep ThrillWriting free and accessible to all.


  1. I so appreciate it when you do these things and then write about them. It certainly helps me as a writer but, more than that, it's so helpful to the first responders who someday may be faced with these situations. It's a good thing that you're doing for them and for all of the future potential victims out there who may well survive because of the training and practice these brave men and women got tending to you. Thank you!

    1. My great pleasure. The responders have been so good to my family, really the least I can do in return.

  2. I think you have to get the prize for the author who does the most thorough research, Fiona! Dedication in the extreme. Very sobering afterthoughts about this though regarding the horrors of plane flight - I've never heard of such exercises being performed at my local airport, which is a little scary, because I'm sure they really must help on a practical level should any such disaster occur.
    So - firstly, I don't think I'll ever fly again and secondly, I'm just going upstairs to get rid of all synthetic clothing!

  3. Love hearing about your reenactment experiences!

  4. Love this so much! Excellent post.