Massport employs students in drill

by Beacon Staff • October 31, 2007

Soaked from the pelting rain, the Massachusetts Port Authority Aviation Director delivered the news: 20 passengers died and 70 more were injured when two Boeing 757s collided at Logan International Airport while taxiing between runways.,Edward Freni stepped up to the podium at about 11 a.m. on Oct. 27 to report a tragedy.

Soaked from the pelting rain, the Massachusetts Port Authority Aviation Director delivered the news: 20 passengers died and 70 more were injured when two Boeing 757s collided at Logan International Airport while taxiing between runways.

But there was one catch: none of it was real.

The announcement marked the beginning of "Operation Ready 2007," a drill designed to test the readiness of emergency crews and Massport staff in the event of an actual disaster. Amidst the fictional chaos, student journalists from Emerson College and Boston University heightened the faux-debacle, peppering Freni with questions as he and his staff gave updates in the Logan media room.

The scenario represented a "runway incursion," when a plane crosses another's runway. The planes were set up in their positions before the event began.

"I didn't know what to expect," said Emerson grad student Nicol Beaumont. "It would have been nice if they would've let us on the runway, but in a real situation like that, they probably wouldn't have."

Periodically, Massport CEO Thomas Kinton, Logan's Fire Chief Robert Donahue and Freni addressed the media room, providing brief updates. As each official came to speak the college students' hands shot into the air as they probed the officials for more details, names and explanations. All the students seemed to be taking their roles very seriously; some asked if something like this had happened before, how such a huge accident could have happened, whether or not the families of the victims had been contacted and what was being done to accommodate all of the victims.

At the end of the last briefing one student loudly demanded, "Is there anything that you know that you're not telling us?" This was the one and only moment throughout the entire event in which Massport officials cracked a hint of a smile. Freni said there was no more information.

"They really didn't have a lot of new information between the briefings," said Joe Vines, a graduate student studying journalism at BU. "They should've been able to tell us more, like if anyone on the ground was hurt. No one was willing to fork over information."

Most of the facts provided during each briefing updated body counts and support telephone numbers for families of the victims to call for counseling.

"They didn't want to speculate, so they were just giving us the basic information," said Beaumont, a broadcast journalism major. "I haven't been to one of these [drills] before, so I don't know what, if any, information they should've given us that they didn't."

All of the passengers wore brightly colored T-shirts that depicted the type of injury they sustained: black for casualties and red for injuries.

Some students were more concerned with the lack of access rather than the lack of information that was being provided.

"Overall, I won't hesitate to say I didn't learn too much," said junior Emerson print journalism major Alison Klein. "They kept us locked up, essentially, in the press room, only to be greeted every half hour with fake press releases."

According to Freni, who addressed the students after the drill, this was how an actual emergency would be handled. Though there were Boston media outlets on the runway covering the drill itself, they would not be allowed out there in the event of a true disaster.

"I was expecting to at least see the 'crash,' but nope!" Klein said. "They definitely wanted people there in the room to ask questions and such."