Hijacking at Castlegar's West Kootenay Regional Airport?
Anyone seeing the plethora of emergency vehicles out in front of the West Kootenay Regional Airport New Year’s Eve might have been concerned, as every agency from RCMP to fire to BC Ambulance, to emergency social services, as well as commissionaires, CATSA and preboard security were on hand to manage a so-called “hijacking attempt”.
Gerry Rempel, who serves as both Fire Chief and airport manager, said it was all part of a surprise emergency training exercise – everyone knew it was coming, but not when.
“This was the scenario: Don Air Flight 1234: They were boarding the aircraft, and we had a (mock) hostage-taking during security. Security initiated the alarm. The hostage-taker herded the passengers onto the aircraft (The hostage-taker was played by airport staffer Frank Shlakoff, Bravo!). On take-off, the hijacker and the pilot got into a tussle and the aircraft veered off of the runway and into the orchard, catching fire in the process,” Rempel said. “All agencies in town took part, in one way or another.”
He said the reason for the secrecy around the date of the exercise was to make sure no one was prepared for it – just like in a real emergency.
“We wanted a realistic number of responders, like on any normal, busy day in the city,” he said. “We wanted to test the airport emergency and safety plans on what would be an average Castlegar day.”
They even, he said, were able to rope in a nice couple from Mexico to play passengers, thereby creating an added element of potential language barriers.
Angie Carrasco, 25, is in Castlegar visiting her sister and family, and she said she never experienced this sort of exercise in her home in Mexico.
“It was fun – something different,” she said, adding it’ll be a great story to share with family and friends in her home country.
Rempel said he felt the exercise was a success.
“I think it went very well,” he said, adding there will be a debriefing on Jan. 6 to examine what went well and where improvements are needed. “There are things we need to change – that’s why we do it, to highlight where we can do better.”
Mayor Lawrence Chernoff also participated, and he concurred with Rempel’s assessment.
“It’s a necessary thing, it’s important to do these exercises,” he said. “What I’d really like to see is a full-blown, community-wide exercise to highlight shortfalls and strengths – in a real emergency, it’s too late to do that.”
Rempel said the exercise in no way effected airport operations.
On a humourous note, this reporter was invited to participate, playing the role of – wait for it – a member of the media, which is about the reach and range of my acting skills.