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HILLSVILLE — When emergency personnel from multiple agencies arrived Saturday morning on the scene of a grisly accident between a school bus and a pickup with an intoxicated driver, they found multiple victims scattered on the ground and in the bus, covered in blood.
They faced lives hanging in the balance, a hazardous materials spill and distraught parents.
Thankfully, it was all a simulation designed to prepare rescuers for the worst, held on Carroll County High School's driver education lot above the football field.
"Please, help me," shrilly screamed one of the “victims” on the ground outside the bus' rear emergency exit. Another lay behind her, underneath the emergency door.
Lacerations covered the face of the screaming teen and blood stained her Galax Old Fiddlers' Convention T-shirt, arms and legs.
"We got help on the way, ma'am," said the Hillsville Police Department officer, who used his radio to report to central dispatch seeing three victims outside the school bus and the truck.
The officer asked for several ambulances to treat the injuries of the busload of students.
In the pickup truck, two people remained in the cab and a third sprawled out on the pickup bed, her foot — twisted backwards — resting on top of a 55-gallon drum of off-road diesel, which mixed with other hazardous materials.
Police, rescue and fire department personnel who responded from all over Carroll County would find this scenario — a truck, driven by a man who overdosed on Xanax, had run over a pedestrian before striking the school bus, causing it to tumble over on its side, at about 9:15 a.m.
The truck carried farm supplies, and the collision caused the diesel fuel, five gallons of antifreeze and a two five-pound bags of fungicide Ridomil to spill.
The girl in the back of the truck had been splashed with the hazardous materials, a threat to her health along with her injuries from the collision.
An investigation by the Hillsville police officers ensued.
The woman hit by the truck started asking rescuers, "Where's my baby?" and distraught parents arrived and had to be restrained by police.
"Where's my child?" one parent yelled in the face of Gary Larrowe, county administrator, the point of contact about the accident for the public and the media. "You're not telling me anything!"
"I think the most important thing is for everybody to stay cool, calm and collected," Larrowe told the media representatives on scene. The emergency personnel were working professionally and diligently to address the many issues the wreck had caused.
He confirmed fatalities from the wreck, but in the confusion no one knew the exact number at that moment.
Police also had to catch the drugged-up driver, who suddenly exited the truck via the window and struggled with Hillsville Police Department's Jason Hawks. The driver pushed and pulled to get away until Hawks fell.
The Lifeguard 11 helicopter landed on the football field to assist the five ambulances in transporting patients.
This simulation of a horrific collision challenged the rescuers.
Those arriving first had to access the accident and survey the scene, where simulated blood could be found on the pavement far away from any of the patients, organizers said.
Emergency medical personnel had to triage the nine students on the bus, the driver, the pedestrian and the others, according to J.B. Tolbert of Carroll EMS and Pipers Gap Rescue. They had to treat a "frail chest," a punctured lung, back injuries, head trauma and protruding eyes, bones through the skin, gaping wounds and the resulting bleeding.
A parent who rushed to the scene suffered a heart attack, too.
Emergency personnel did everything they would have done if the situation was real.
They lifted patients on backboards to move them onto gurneys. Rescue personnel cut away pieces of clothing to get to wounds and asked about patients' allergies to medicines.
Firefighters had to figure out what to do about the hazardous materials — they doused them with foam — and how to extricate the victims wedged in the overturned bus.
Carroll Emergency Services Director Joe Roma said the training exercise was meant to test the responders.
The victim in the back of the pickup, for example, got "contaminated" from the chemicals there, and rescuers had to decide how to treat her.
Rescuers had to check the accident scene closely to make sure that injured parties had not wandered off. Emergency personnel were supposed to have noticed the fake blood scattered around the scene — away from any of the victims — and searched for other people with injuries.
"The first one on scene did size it up and walked all the way around the scene and started calling," Roma noted. "That's your incident training."
Depending on their actions, more simulated fatalities could have happened.
Another challenge for the rescuers: the pedestrian victim who asked them about her “baby.”
Tolbert said the victim was actually referring to her dog.
Firefighters had to know the particulars of handling hazardous materials and decide how to get the patients off the bus.
In the end, firefighters removed the emergency door to get at a patient underneath it. When they found another person wedged under the seats inside, they decided to cut out seats from the bus and hack through half of the back with the jaws of life.
Student Courtney Fredrick played the victim trapped under the emergency exit. She emerged after completing her role bloodied and in tattered clothes, but smiling while she went around with her camera snapping pictures.
From her vantage point, she felt the firefighters and the emergency medical personnel took good care of her.
"It got really tight, especially when they were trying to cut it off," Fredrick said of her time under the door. "It pushed in a little, but nothing major."
Emergency workers put a blanket over her to protect her during that time.
Larrowe thought that parents would feel comforted if they knew what organizers learned in this training.
Organizers had to use a tow truck and cable to turn the county school bus over on its side, he said. Even then, they had to pull it more than halfway to the ground before it fell the rest of the way.
"Those things were meant to stay on the ground," Larrowe noted.
The bus, at the end of its usefulness, became the centerpiece of the training. Larrowe noted how well it stayed intact throughout the whole thing. It reminded him of a tank.
He praised the professionalism of all the volunteers, their close cooperation and the services they give to the community.
They are invaluable, he said. Carroll would be hard-pressed to afford those services if they had to pay employees for all the work that the volunteers do.
Carroll Supervisors' Chairman David Hutchins watched the many training activities, paid for by a grant, from the sidelines.
To him, a bystander, all the activities looked like they were carried out pretty smoothly. He'd like to see more training like this involving emergency personnel from Galax and Grayson County.
"I think this was a tremendous exercise, to see all the volunteers doing what they're doing and working together."