Several dozen bodies are strewn across a dark, damp underground subway station, crushed beneath crumpled cars and slabs of concrete. Car alarms are blaring and natural gas is seeping into the gritty air. Minutes ago, a gas line exploded, causing a parking garage to collapse into the fictional Orange Street station — a nightmarish scene fit for a movie.
This is the kind of emergency response situation New Jersey's Metro Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) Strike Team is prepared to handle. The team, made up of members from 10 fire departments spanning six counties and two cities, spent four days last week training at the Orange Street fire academy in Newark at a simulated emergency disaster scenario.
"No one department can handle a collapse like this," said Richard Zieser, deputy chief of Newark fire department's special operations division.
For the past four years, the academy has hosted man-made simulations to train the Strike Team, created after the 9/11 attacks to respond to large-scale emergency situations. Each year, it takes several Newark fire officials months to design new scenarios, which are then built to look as realistic as possible.
"The concept is great," said Art Mauriello, who serves as batallion chief for Newark Fire Department's special operations.
This year was no different. Fire officials modified an old city bus to resemble a subway car that teams sliced open each day, and the fake station was even adorned with mock-up "Wanted" advertisements. Firefighters got their hands dirty with a circuit of posts, which involved cutting through air shafts and reinforcing trenches with struts to retrieve trapped victims. After each day, the stations are reverted for the next shift.
Men from Morristown/Millburn, North Hudson, Paterson, Newark, Hoboken, Jersey City, Bayonne, Hackensack, Elizabeth and Port Authority worked together in teams of five, led by a captain.
"The whole thing is about building relationships," said Zieser.