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N.M. First Responders, National Guard Test Skills in Earthquake Exercise

Aug. 13—"I don't know where my husband is! Where is he?" screamed Kay Kay McDermott, blood streaming down her face from a large laceration as emergency responders helped her from the wreckage of a train at the Lamy train station one morning last week. Meanwhile, her husband, Stacy McDermott, gritted his teeth against the pain of a fractured leg; some of the bone had forced its way through the skin.

Fortunately, the injuries of the Edgewood couple were nothing more than special-effects makeup and the "wreckage" was actually a fully functional and intact Rail Runner Express car.

The pair were among around 100 actors that assisted with an emergency preparedness exercise involving the New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma and Louisiana National Guards and local, state and federal agencies in Lamy on Tuesday.

"This was all for the first responders so they can hone their skills," Stacy McDermott said. "We try to make it as real as possible."

The train derailment exercise was a portion of a massive exercise performed in northern New Mexico from Aug. 3 through Thursday.

Staged by the U.S. Army's North Command as part of its "Vigilant Guard" exercise series, the scenario simulated the aftermath of a 7.0 magnitude earthquake striking the Albuquerque area.

Four of the federally funded exercises are performed each year throughout the country, tailored to each state's goals and possible emergency scenarios.

Vigilant Guard senior planner Russ Coble said it takes around 18 months to design each exercise.

"I think beyond being fun, it's rewarding," Coble said. "You come out of an exercise knowing that you helped that state protect its citizens."

In Tuesday's exercise, aftershocks from the quake caused a passenger train to derail and strike a stationary car that contained anhydrous ammonia, a toxic chemical.

Not only did emergency responders need to tend to the 100 people involved in the accident, they also had to work to decontaminate the area and seal up the leaking car.

"The goal is to have that realism so we can come out with lessons learned," said Maj. Robert Aguilar of the New Mexico National Guard.

Aguilar said it was challenging to coordinate radio contact between all the participants; some use different types and frequencies.

"I think in any one of the exercises I've been a part of, communication is always our biggest challenge," Aguilar said. "That's why it's so important for us to train like this, so we can overcome those in a training environment."

Martin Vigil, Santa Fe County emergency manager, served as the incident commander during Tuesday's exercise.

More than 100 Santa Fe county emergency medical technicians and firefighters were initially dispatched to the scene.

"It was basically an all-call type response," Vigil said.

It wasn't enough, though, and Vigil called on neighboring counties and the National Guard for additional support.

Vigil said he was pleased with the interagency cooperation.

"We had a few speed bumps," Vigil said. "They identified, adapted, went to Plan B and got on with business."

Other scenarios staged as parts of the weeklong exercise included a high angle rescue and medevac after a Sandia Peak tram car fell during the quake, search and rescue efforts for a group of missing hikers and riot suppression in the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta Park.

New Mexico National Guard Adjutant General Maj. Gen. Ken Nava said he also was impressed with the performance of participating agencies.

"We work with joint and interagency partners on a regular basis, but this exercise has taken it to a different level," Nava said in a statement. "Vigilant Guard has provided the New Mexico National Guard the ability to hone our communications, responses, and relationships when working with our interagency and joint partner agencies at the tribal, federal, state and local levels.

"Everyone, from our soldiers and airmen to the first responders and partner agencies, trained with a great attitude, worked hard, and were eager to learn more to be ready to respond if New Mexico's worst day occurs."

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