Nearly 1M Utahns take part in largest 'ShakeOut' to date

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MILLCREEK — In a dark tunnel beneath St. Mark's Hospital, a pipe protruded from David Link's abdomen.

Blood and water dripped from the pipe onto the cement at his feet.

"Sir, do you know where you are?" asked Tom Hansen, an Urban Search and Rescue volunteer, as he wrapped bandages around Link's wound.

"No," Link murmured.

As Hansen worked to stabilize Link's wounds, he realized that before he could free his patient, he would have to saw the pipe from the wall.

"Sir, we're working to get you out of here, OK?" Hansen said.

Link's life wasn't actually in danger. As a staff member of St. Mark's, he was pretending to be impaled — with fake blood and other lifelike gore — so Hansen and his team could practice a rescue operation.

Link and Hansen were among the nearly 1 million Utahns who participated in the state's largest earthquake drill to date Thursday, the Great Utah ShakeOut.

The statewide drill began at 10:15 a.m. The scenario: The worst natural disaster to ever hit the Salt Lake Valley had struck — a magnitude 7 earthquake.

In reality, the Wasatch Front fault line remained docile, as it has for thousands of years, but still more than 980,000 ducked under desks and chairs to wait for the fictional tremors to subside.

Hospitals, schools, businesses, government offices and others all joined in on the annual drill because of the devastation a major earthquake could have on Utah's residents, economy and infrastructure.

At St. Mark's, the pretend community casualties were reported at more than 2,000 dead and more than 30,000 injured, said hospital spokeswoman Danielle Wilcox.

To add to the carnage, St. Mark's simulated the collapse of its west tower, using a utility tunnel under the hospital to challenge search and rescue teams with a dark, enclosed and complicated environment — like a collapsed building — to navigate while trying to find trapped and injured patients.

Like Link, other actors pretended to be trapped in rubble. Some needed limb amputations. In other instances, rescuers, guided by K-9 teams, needed to break through concrete walls to reach victims.

Patient David Link is attended to by search and rescue member Tom Hansen as hospital staff, students and emergency crews take part in mock emergency situations at St. Mark's Hospital in Salt Lake City, Thursday, April 21, 2016. (Photo: Scott Winterton, Deseret News)
Patient David Link is attended to by search and rescue member Tom Hansen as hospital staff, students and emergency crews take part in mock emergency situations at St. Mark's Hospital in Salt Lake City, Thursday, April 21, 2016. (Photo: Scott Winterton, Deseret News)

Outside the hospital, several medical triage tents were set up to treat about 60 acting patients.

Rescue teams also simulated a helicopter crash atop the hospital. Paul VanHarn from the Unified Fire Authority got to practice rappelling the pretend crash victim, David Polonsky, safely to the ground.

"When we have an opportunity like this, it's great for us," said Unified Fire Authority Capt. Dan Brown. "This training is about as realistic as it can get."

More than 500 people — including nursing students, hospital staff and volunteers from Urban Search and Rescue, Unified Fire Authority, Unified Police Department and the Utah Health Department — participated in St. Mark's simulation, said John Jones, emergency preparedness coordinator for MountainStar Healthcare.

"This earthquake, we're told, could happen any time," Jones said. "This could happen any day with any of our facilities, so to practice with all of the teams, to make sure we all work together … it's invaluable for when it actually happens."

The ShakeOut's mission is to instill an instinctual response — drop, cover and hold on — and to help individuals and organizations practice emergency response plans in the event the rare yet statistically plausible quake occurs, said Joe Dougherty, spokesman for the Utah Division of Emergency Management.

Earlier this week, earthquake experts released startling new probabilities forecasting the Wasatch Front's risk of a major earthquake in the next 50 years at 43 percent.

"We would love to be able to predict the location and the time of the next earthquake, but we can't," Dougherty said.

He noted, however, that as scientists have gathered more information, the chances of it happening somewhere along the Wasatch Front have increased.

"So because earthquakes can happen anytime, anywhere, we just need to be in a constant state of preparedness," Dougherty said. "Preparedness is never done, but it can become more engrained into our culture."

Elsewhere across the state, schoolchildren to state officials practiced their earthquake response plans.

Alarms sounded at the Utah Capitol, where state employees evacuated onto the campus. Meanwhile, officials at the state Emergency Operations Center — a secure bunker beneath the Capitol that would act as the nerve center for state agencies and first responders — practiced their emergency-response plans.

Other participants included more than 600,000 K-12 students, 148,000 college students and 118,000 local government employees, Dougherty said.

Farther north, Centerville City Hall used the ShakeOut to practice earthquake safety and train their employees to respond to any emergency situation. During the drill, Centerville employees huddled under their desks before being debriefed by Police Chief Paul Child.

Holding the ShakeOut at City Hall creates "muscle memory," Child said. “What we’re trying to do is to protect our assets. We can’t stop the earthquake from happening, but we can help people survive the earthquake."

"We hope people will take this information and think, 'If this happens, I want to make sure I'm the best prepared I can be, not just for myself, but for my family, my neighborhood and my co-workers,'" Dougherty said. "Even if you don't believe the earthquake will ever happen, what is the harm in being ready to respond?"

Contributing: Emily Larson, Shara Park, Jed Boal, Keith McCord, Deanie Wimmer


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