Brooklyn Boro

I was ‘impaled’ on a Brooklyn train track

How the city prepares for a full-scale disaster

May 13, 2019 Mary Frost
In an FDNY Special Operations Task Force disaster training drill in Brooklyn last week, rescuers had to break through debris to rescue victims trapped in a tunnel. Photo credit: FDNY
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Last week, I lay on a freight train tunnel running below East New York, “impaled” by an iron pipe. Laying on my back in the black tunnel, it all felt real. Noises from far down the shaft echoed eerily, then faded.

Members of FDNY’s Special Operations Task Force were in training for a full-scale disaster in a freight tunnel running below East New York.

When the worst happens, these are the guys who rush in to save your life.

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In the simulation, part of a three-day exercise, the tunnel collapsed, raining metal and glass shrapnel onto the unsuspecting pedestrians below. Tons of debris blocked the tracks. The dead and the wounded were scattered like rag dolls flung along the smoke-filled passage.

CERT volunteer Mary Frost role-played an impaled disaster victim. Photo via Emergency Management
CERT volunteer Mary Frost role-played an impaled disaster victim. Photo via Emergency Management

Assisting in the operation and its coordination were personnel from NYC Emergency Management. My fellow live “victims” were volunteers from NYC Community Emergency Response Teams, made up in gory theatrical moulage — blood, broken bones and guts. CERT members undergo a training program themselves that provides basic response skills needed for fire safety, disaster medical operations and more.

Photo credit: FDNY
Photo credit: FDNY

At one point, I heard the approach of something that made a loud whirring sound. As it got closer, I saw spinning lights on a round object flying through the tunnel. It was a drone encased in a basketball-sized cage, occasionally bouncing off the wall or ground. The drone was a thrilling sight, lighting up the tunnel and allowing me to briefly orient myself.

I learned later that the drone was sending a video stream and other sensor data back to a command post set up under a tent outside the tunnel so rescuers could see what dangers and obstacles awaited them.

The FDNY command post was set up in a tent near the tunnel. Photo credit: FDNY
The FDNY command post was set up in a tent near the tunnel. Photo credit: FDNY

Ten minutes after the drone passed, there was a soft whirring sound and I sensed the movement of the stones and debris scattered along the tracks. The whirring sound came closer, then stopped somewhere nearby. After a few minutes it moved off down the tunnel.

I learned later that the sound belonged to a bot on treads rolling along the ground. The bot was surveying for victims using infrared cameras.

A small bot assisted FDNY task force members in finding victims during the disaster drill. Photo credit: FDNY
A small bot assisted FDNY task force members in finding victims during the disaster drill. Photo credit: FDNY

The rescuers arrive

The shouts of rescuers emanated from somewhere down the line. Electric saws whined and loud metallic bangs rang out, followed by the sounds of footsteps.

The first rescuer, with a light attached to his helmet, made his way to me. He asked me questions, took a quick look at my condition (a pipe was jutting from my stomach), and hung a triage tag around my neck. He radioed for a medic and assured me help would be coming soon.

He was followed by other task force members, including an FDNY doctor. The doc assessed my condition, asking me what happened and what my name was, and prescribed a painkiller. As I acted panicky, he assured me that I was in good hands, joked with me about movies, and attached a fake IV to my arm. (Though he gave me the option of having a real one inserted, which I declined.)

The team put me on a hard stretcher and stabilized the pipe by wrapping gauze around it and the board. They carried me down a section of the tunnel and loaded me onto a rescue vehicle. Other victims were being transported to the vehicle as well, and our rescue was complete.

A CERT volunteer “victim” is loaded onto a cart as part of the disaster simulation. Photo by Frank Farance
A CERT volunteer “victim” is loaded onto a cart as part of the disaster simulation. Photo by Frank Farance

Several of the role-playing CERT members spoke later of the appreciation they gained for the dangerous work done on a daily basis by the FDNY. The can-do attitude, cheerfulness and humor the rescuers displayed after having spent more than an hour cutting through metal and climbing over debris was awe inspiring.

CERT members said they were also excited by the department’s use of technology to assist in the rescue.

“The drone lit up the whole tunnel, so even after it was gone — for an actual victim — this would have provided some psychological first aid because one, your body and balance system would be able to rebalance and reorient oneself; and two, you’d know that help was on the way, and it might give you a greater ability to cope with the disaster,” CERT team member Frank Farance told the Brooklyn Eagle.

Emergency Management personnel coordinated many of the moving parts, including transporting CERT members to the site.

Emergency Management also dealt with unexpected events of its own along the way. At one point, an EM manager had to stop a freight train that hadn’t gotten the word that there were people working inside the tunnel (although eventually the train would have been prevented from entering the tunnel anyway because a “boot” had been placed on the track.)

Photo credit: FDNY
Photo credit: FDNY

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