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Over a dozen people rushed out of a school bus parked at the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport on Saturday morning, some painted with wounds and bruises.

Much of the crowd hurried toward emergency vehicles idling on a nearby airport road. Others hobbled around the bus. A few people writhed or lay motionless on the snow-covered ground.

It was all part of a training exercise for first responders, a simulation of a plane crash. Brian Sprenger, Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport director, explained the scenario that staff and volunteers from around Gallatin Valley played out on Saturday — a Boeing 737 had a problem during takeoff, its wing caught on fire and it crashed in a field at the west end of the airport.

Participants in the drill didn’t know how many passengers were on board or how many survivors there were, yet they were tasked with responding to the emergency safely, quickly and efficiently.

The drill’s exact premise varies slightly each time it’s carried out, but the goal is always the same. The airport, along with local agencies, businesses and organizations, want to refine their aircraft accident response plan and test coordination.

“When we do a drill, the key is we’re trying to do it in a live fashion so we can get a feel for what it would be like,” Sprenger said. “We don’t call it off just because the weather is not cooperating.”

The Federal Aviation Administration requires the airport to conduct the full-scale exercise every three years. Airport staff had planned to do the drill last fall, but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed it, Sprenger said. Officials also do smaller-scale drills annually.

Approximately 55 volunteers played the roles of injured and uninjured passengers and their friends and relatives on Saturday. Actors were pulled from Summit Aviation and Civil Air Patrol. A school bus simulated the downed plane.

Volunteers who acted as the family members and friends of passengers were staged in a former restaurant inside the airport. They asked where their loved ones were, when they would be reunited and who was at fault for the accident.

In the event of an accident, firefighters would initially focus on evacuating passengers, getting any fire under control and cooling down the plane’s exits, Sprenger explained. They would also provide a first wave of medical treatment, as it would take longer for medical technicians to arrive.

Uninjured passengers would be pulled to an area away from the crash site and directed to a room where they could reunite with loved ones, according to Sprenger.

“People are looking for direction,” he said. “If no one is there, they don’t know how to respond.”

Airport firefighters would lead an initial response, but the Central Valley Fire District would take over command. Officials would coordinate at two separate command centers — one at the site of the accident and one inside the airport itself.

“There’s a whole lot of things going on, and everybody is doing their individual parts,” Sprenger said. “We try to keep it simple, but it’s never quite as easy as you would like.”

The jet age in the early 1960s was a major turning point for aviation, Sprenger said. Aircraft accidents from the time period helped the industry create better standards.

“We have a very safe industry in the U.S.,” he said. “We haven’t had a major accident since 2009.”

The airport’s three-hour exercise is a major effort county-wide, according to Ron Lindroth, Central Valley fire chief. It roped in firefighters, law enforcement officers and medical teams stationed throughout the Gallatin Valley.

Central Valley Fire, American Medical Response, Life Flight Network, Jet Aviation, American Red Cross, Hope Animal-Assisted Crisis Response, American Airlines, Southwest Airlines, students from Summit Aviation, Salvation Army and Karst Stage are just some of the entities involved, according to airport officials.

A critique of the response at the end of the simulation helps officials identify things that went wrong and right.

“When we’re running an exercise, we have to identify areas of weakness,” Lindroth said. “Ultimately our goal is to save as many lives as we possibly can.”

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Helena Dore can be reached at hdore@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.

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