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Victims Bri Mayberry and Joseph Defoe run for safety during a mock drill at the Limestone County Career Technical Center on Tuesday.
Daily photo by John Godbey
Victims Bri Mayberry and Joseph Defoe run for safety during a mock drill at the Limestone County Career Technical Center on Tuesday.

Testing homeland security
Mock emergency exercise evaluates Athens response

By Holly Hollman 340-2445

ATHENS — With what appeared to be a severe abdominal injury, 17-year-old Joseph Defoe waited for what was about to unfold at the Limestone County Career Technical Center.

When asked how he got the injury, Defoe nonchalantly said, "Something about me getting eviscerated."

Defoe, from West Limestone High School, was among the center's Health Occupation students who participated in Tuesday afternoon's homeland security training exercise at the school.

The Athens-Limestone Emergency Management Agency received a $100,000 state homeland security grant to conduct the exercise. The county hired Lee Helms Associates to conduct the mock emergency and evaluate responders' plans and actions.

In Tuesday's scenario, an inmate escaped from Limestone Correctional Facility and hijacked a truck hauling anhydrous ammonia. The inmate shot the truck driver in the leg and wrecked the truck on Sanderfer Road at the entrance to the tech center. Unbeknownst to those who stopped to help the driver, the ammonia leaked, causing those who helped to suffer chemical burns.

While the truck driver tried to wave down motorists for help, the inmate ran to the school and shot multiple
students outside. The inmate then took the school hostage.

Jim Aldridge, a training and exercise officer for Lee Helms, said the scenario gave emergency responders two issues to deal with, a hazardous situation and a hostage situation. Responders had an idea of what would happen but didn't know what actions the inmate would take.

Police, fire and ambulance crews could not assist the injured at the school until they knew the inmate would not fire at them or again at the students.

Those suffering chemical burns, such as 17-year-old Tashina Gray of Athens High, lay on the pavement acting as if they couldn't breath.

Firefighters did remove Gray and the other injured from the wreck scene before HAZMAT arrived. An evaluator said responders receive training to help the injured first, but in this case, they should have stopped the leak first.

A wind blew the imaginary fumes toward Sanderfer Road Apartments.

"If they had addressed the leak first, then those apartments wouldn't have become an issue," the evaluator said. "In reality, they would have had to evacuate the whole complex."

A Sheriff's Department helicopter also helped spread smoke and fumes, the evaluator noted.

Athens couldn't contain the wreck scene completely because it doesn't have a full-scale HAZMAT unit. Responders had to wait about 30 to 35 minutes for Huntsville to send its unit.

"That shows that this area needs more funds to have a HAZMAT unit," said Lee Helms, owner of the company. "If there was bad weather or worse traffic, response time could have taken longer."

Meanwhile, students splattered in fake blood and covered in fake gunshot wounds screamed and ran through the outside picnic area toward Athens police officers who circled the school. Ambulances took the injured students to Athens-Limestone Hospital for treatment. Distraught parents sought their children among the injured brought in.

Back at the school, the inmate had booby trapped the school and attached bombs to students. He asked to speak to Sheriff Mike Blakely and hung up the phone on anyone else who called. He also asked to speak to his mother.

After about two hours, Limestone's SWAT team shot and killed the suspect after he refused to give up.

Now, evaluators will create a report of the strengths and weakness of each agency's response. Agencies will have to create an improvement plan for any weaknesses and send those to the state and homeland security.

Results of the reports will be available in about two weeks.

Jill Adams, Health Occupations teacher, said her students participated so they could hear medical terms and how responders use them and experience what emergency medical technicians, nurses and doctors do when treating the injured.

Daphne Jackson, 17, of Athens High, was shot in the arm while at the school's flowerbed.

"It's kind of scary to act like you've been shot by some crazy guy running into the school," Jackson said.

Sandie Turner, 19, of Elkmont High, was shot in the head while outside.

"It's exciting to get to do this, but it's sad too," she said. "I don't want anything like this to really happen."

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