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Mock Newport boat crash helps agencies practice for disaster

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An Orange County Fire Authority helicopter hoists a rescue swimmer and survivor during a simulated maritime disaster exercise at Corona del Mar State Beach on Wednesday. 

(Don Leach / Daily Pilot)

The radio call came in a few minutes after 10 a.m.

A 65-foot fishing boat had collided with a yacht just north of the Newport Harbor jetty.

“We’ve got blood and people all over the place. You need to send help, lots,” a voice said over the radio, kicking off the largest local maritime disaster response in the past 20 years.

Fortunately, it was only a drill.

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But for most of the day Wednesday, Corona del Mar State Beach was flooded with emergency personnel practicing how they’d handle an offshore accident so big that it demanded a reaction from agencies throughout the region.

Local, state and federal crews simulated what they’d do if two large vessels slammed into each other off the Newport Beach coast.

Minutes after the radio first crackled, lifeguards were in the water, swimming toward passengers who had been thrown from the Aggressor, a sportfishing boat on loan for the drill.

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The yacht, which sunk in the scenario, was imaginary.

Workers on emergency boats and personal watercraft started plucking survivors from the sea. Occasionally a helicopter would hover low with rescuers dangling down to hoist up yachters stranded on jetty rocks.

Onshore, paramedics tended to pretend victims who wore wetsuits in the chilly water and makeup to simulate injuries.

Later, divers scoured the ocean for mannequins representing bodies.

Beyond honing their search and rescue tactics, such a large-scale drill gives first responders the chance to practice managing the chaos that comes with a disaster involving dozens of victims, according to Newport Beach fire Battalion Chief Justin Carr.

“When you have two boats and 80 victims, it overwhelms the initial system,” Carr said.

Indeed, more than a dozen police and fire agencies from around Orange County were called in as part of the drill.

The U.S. Coast Guard, the California Department of Parks and Recreation and state park lifeguards also participated.

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In all, 200 people, including volunteers and public-safety officials, were involved in the drill, which cost about $89,000.

In the aftermath, the agencies will assess their performance and fine-tune their reactions.

“It really helps us refine our policies and procedures,” Newport Beach Fire Chief Scott Poster said.

After witnessing a similar exercise in San Diego, Newport’s Fire Department wanted to put its disaster plans to the test.

It took lengthy planning to coordinate with local authorities for Wednesday’s drill and secure funding through a federal grant.

“Two years and a lot of effort later, here we are,” Carr said.


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