Mock search-and-rescue turns into real disaster
Toronto Star (The Canadian Press)
Copyright 2007 The Toronto Star
CORNER BROOK, Nfld. — An elaborate search and rescue exercise off the west coast of Newfoundland involving about 400 people was transformed into heart-thumping reality today when passengers aboard a covered lifeboat started choking on acrid fumes, apparently from a sputtering engine.
Two people, apparently suffering from serious injuries, were plucked from the motorized boat by a Cormorant rescue helicopter around noon.
The 23 others aboard were taken to shore, where all but two received medical attention.
By late afternoon, only three were still receiving treatment for their injuries.
Dr. Brent Thistle, head of the emergency ward at Western Memorial Hospital in Corner Brook, said doctors treating the three were concerned about smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning.
He said the three were expected to receive treatment in a hyperbaric chamber once they were transferred to a larger hospital in St. John’s.
At first, the coast guard said some of the passengers were overcome by smoke, but later reports suggested the fumes were caused by engine exhaust.
“We are certainly concentrating in that area,” said Roger Flood, president of Marine Atlantic, the Crown-owned company that operates the passenger ferry and lifeboat involved in the two-day drill.
“If there’s a problem right now, we would be suspicious that it would be fumes from the exhaust system.”
Flood, who was observing the exercise from another vessel when things started to go wrong, said 11 people aboard the lifeboat initially complained about inhaling fumes.
“We check all of our life-saving equipment on a regular basis on the vessels,” he said. “We’ve not had an incident with any of our life-rafts of that nature ever.”
The exercise, dubbed Ocean Guardian III, involved about 400 people dealing with a mock disaster staged aboard the Marine Atlantic passenger ferry MV Leif Ericson in the Bay of Islands, about 90 kilometres from Corner Brook.
The main scenario involved an explosion and fire aboard the ferry, requiring rapid evacuation of numerous casualties.
Witnesses said one of the lifeboats used to evacuate the ferry started to spew smoke as it left the side of the larger vessel.
Sgt. Wayne Newell of the Corner Brook RCMP said the Mounties used one of their patrol vessels to ferry 11 people to shore.
“It sort of underscores the need to do exercises,” he said. ``We can script certain things, but there’s always surprises for sure.”
Today was the second day of the drill, aimed at testing the Major Maritime Disaster Plan drafted by the Halifax Search and Rescue Region.
Neil Peet, supervisor of marine search and rescue programs with the Canadian Coast Guard, described the exercise as one of the largest in the coast guard’s history.
Flood said the lifeboat would be taken to North Sydney, N.S., where it will be inspected.