Yellowstone Regional Airport Operations Manager Bruce Ransom likely will never forget Oct. 29, 2003. That day, a FedEx cargo plane crashed in a snowstorm while heading to the airport, landing short of the runway on US 14-16-20 East and flipping upside down into Alkali Lake. The pilot was killed.
Ransom, a volunteer firefighter at the time, responded to the scene.
“It was pretty horrific,” he said.
Local emergency responders and airport staff work to prepare for the possibility an event like this could happen again. In late August, YRA hosted a tabletop exercise to plan emergency steps that would be taken in such an emergency.
“If this scenario actually unfolded, it would be a disaster,” said Ransom.
Under the discussed scenario, a 70-person commercial aircraft has suffered brake failure after landing on the tarmac, causing it to slide across the highway and into Alkali Lake during the summer. A wing of the aircraft has broken off and is lying in the road, while the aircraft is floating about 100 feet from the shore. Smoke is coming from the plane, but its fuselage appears still intact.
Firefighters would take the lead on the rescue but before engaging in any type of emergency effort, responders must stop and survey the runway and scene of the accident to determine the best course of action.
“We’re going to immediately check the airspace and see if there’s anybody in the pattern, is there anybody coming in,” Ransom said. “We’re going to notify those people we’ve got an emergency.”
A cause for concern considerable amounts of fuel are spilling into the lake.
“I just know how volatile this is when it’s on the surface of water,” Ransom said.
To mitigate this hazard, firefighters would spray foam into the lake and attempt to seal off runoff to prevent contaminated water from escaping. Depending on the size of fire, firefighters from Powell and Park County Rural Fire District may assist.
Meanwhile, Transportation Security Administration staff are in charge of determining is the incident were a terrorist attack as soon as possible so responders are not at risk when accessing the plane.
If determined safe, Search and Rescue boats would be sent out to the plane to rescue the passengers. Bill Brown, Park County Search and Rescue coordinator, said staff could be on scene within 20 minutes of being called.
Ransom said although firefighters would be responsible for removing victims from the plane, airport staff would provide valuable insight as far as where they may need to cut along the fuselage. Ransom said if it weren’t submerged, staff would disable the plane’s battery.
The highway would be shut down as soon as possible and about a dozen ambulances would be made available for plane victims within an hour. School busses would also be used as backup transport vehicles.
Phillip Franklin, Cody Regional Health emergency medical services director, said a mass fatality event would warrant engaging a portable morgue to store bodies. He said rescuers would focus on removing those still alive from the aircraft first and possibly leave those deceased inside for longer periods of time.
“This may just be one big body recovery,” Brown said.
Franklin said a triage staging area could be set up near Choice Aviation and inside the plane itself if conditions allowed.
“Our job is easy because these guys (Fire, and Search and Rescue) are having to figure out the technical stuff,” he said. “Waiting for them to figure out what they need and support them in their role to get patients.”
Ransom said preventing hypothermia among survivors would be a concern even in the summer.
Survivors of the crash would be asked to stay on the scene until initial investigations were complete.
Kelly Croft, public information officer for Park County Public Health, said all COVID-19 safety protocols go “out the window” when treating this type of event, but Jack Tatum, Park County homeland security director, said they will still have access to face masks.
SkyWest Airlines would send out a team of personnel from outside the area to assist with the situation. Rooms would likely be secured at the nearby Beartooth Inn by the airline to house those from the plane and their families.
Croft said following the event, responders would also be evaluated to make sure they did not ingest fumes or any other toxic substances in their work.
Bob Hooper, former YRA general manager, said the aircraft couldn’t be removed from the lake nor can air traffic resume at the airport until the National Transportation Safety Board gave approval.
Jerry Parker, Fire District 2 administrator, said an incident commander would be chosen to relay public messages about the event that will draw a national audience.
“Your social media is going to be out there first before we can release anything,” Croft said.
Although the airport practices for an emergency about once a year, it had never prepared for a water emergency before.
“We can sit there and organize it the way we’d think it would work, but as soon as it happens it’s going to be getting things done where they need to be done, however they need to be done,” Tatum said.