When the explosion finally happens, no one is expecting it. Our screams are genuine; we duck and cover our heads with our hands reflexively. Less than half of us are still standing. A woman in a red sweatshirt screams and pants, bent and clutching her knees.
I look at the two women standing next to me, Nicole Lemieux and Yiye Xu. Nicole has at least six lacerations on her face and arms. Yiye has one large laceration on her forehead and a severe rash on her neck and chin.
The screaming fades. People look at each other and shuffle nervously. Mike Bamberger, OSU’s emergency manager, raises his megaphone: “This is normal.” The emergency personnel are still on their way. We can save our screaming for them.
I am one of about 100 volunteer “victims” attending Oregon State University’s (OSU) Reser Stadium before sunrise this past Thursday, Oct. 20, for the area’s largest ever disaster-preparedness simulation. Additional volunteers were playing victims at Samaritan Health Services hospitals in Corvallis, Albany, and Lebanon, or acting as moulage artists, creating injuries with wax, fake blood, and other supplies.
The scenario: Five minutes after kickoff at an OSU home football game, a natural gas line explodes in the Cibelli’s Pizza concession stand. The explosion and following panic injures 136 people, who must be triaged and sent to the three hospitals.
By 7 a.m., most of us have received our assignments, printed on sheets of white paper. I am Victim #132, Laura Collins, 22 years of age. Chief complaint: shoulder pain. Diagnosis? Dislocated right shoulder.
I meet Nicole and Yiye in line outside the women’s bathroom, waiting to receive our injuries. Nicole tells me that her dad was a police officer, so her family has participated in multiple disaster-preparedness events. “You’re supposed to play into it, play the victim, play that you’re hurt, so it can be very intense for both us and the firefighters,” she says.
Inside the makeup room, it’s not intense so much as curiously festive. “Does anybody know where the burns are?” a man yells loudly. “There are a lot of people here who need burns.”
A bucket full of plastic bones sits on one table. Nearby, a woman’s leg is getting covered with fake blood. The other actors seem to relish receiving their wounds, but I’m secretly grateful that all I need is a half a tennis ball taped to my shoulder.
Many participants are excited to document and share the event. One woman says she might keep her laceration on all day. Another is taking pictures to post on Facebook. We are all here to help the emergency responders practice, yes, but we’re also here for the spectacle. Fake injuries give us the chance to gawk and stare in a way that we never could if they were real.
Back in the main hallway, we get a briefing from Kevin Higgins, Benton County Sheriff’s Office Emergency Services program manager. Higgins tells us the explosion will happen between 8 and 8:05 a.m.
At around 7:55, there’s a dull thud. “Well, that was the explosion, I guess, so get into place,” Higgins says.
We jump into action: broken bones, lacerations, contusions, fractures, burns, disorientation. Some people lay on the ground. A few began screaming. Most simply look around quizzically, as if asking, “That was it?” I wandered closer to Cibelli’s Pizza, where we had all been supposedly waiting in line.
A student lies on the ground near me screaming, “My small bladder! My kidney!”
Nicole looks around. “There are a lot of people on the ground,” she says. “Not everyone is supposed to be dying.”
Before I can respond, there is a loud boom, quickly followed by a second. I think of the gas leak that happened yesterday in Portland: two explosions in quick succession and eight people injured. My adrenaline rush is real.
But we know the explosion is fake, and after a few minutes there are only a few dedicated screamers left. The rest of us just stand. We listen to the garbage truck unloading. We hear a passing train.
“There’s so many unexpecteds,” Nicole says. “You can’t really hear the ambulances coming with all the unexpecteds.”
Planning for the Unexpected
Emergency managers and responders spend their time thinking of the unexpected. Are we ready to respond to a school bus crash? A collapsing building? An active shooter? A gas leak explosion?
Emergency plans must be flexible across any potential scenario. Whether in a stadium with 136 people or a school bus with 12, the triage process looks the same: sort victims into red, yellow, and green. Red patients—those with critical conditions, like a heart attack or extreme blood loss—get priority transport to the hospitals. Yellow patients—those who need treatment for things like a broken bone or laceration but are stable—are held. And green patients—a dislocated shoulder or mild shock, for example—can likely be sent home to follow up for treatment another day, if needed.
As a green, I was processed slowly. I realized that I might not even appear injured, as it was hard to see my tennis-ball bump under my puffy vest. It seemed like those getting attention were either visibly wounded or vocal. Would Laura Collins, 22-year-old dislocated shoulder, ask for help? I’m wasn’t sure how to act, and it was hard to keep pretending it was real.
Talking to Mike Bamberger after, I started to feel OK about my confusion. Even if I didn’t perform how I thought a victim *should* perform, I was a live human, and therefore unpredictable. Mike said emergency responders always strive for realism in their trainings, but they can do only so much without volunteers.
“If I have to continue to inject things, it’s not realistic,” he says. “In this one, you were the injection, right? Once it started I just really stood back. The responders have to interpret what they see and apply their skills.”
And while emergency responders and hospitals regularly train for disasters, they rarely get a chance to test the limits of their systems, finding its cracks so they can fix them.
The good news: Bamberger says the drill went as good as he could have expected. The 18 participating local groups worked together to successfully triage, transport, and admit all the patients in under an hour, better than his planned 90 minutes. Even better, during the simulation the responders were already identifying small ways they could be more efficient.
By Maggie Anderson