Humorist Jeff Kramer among ‘victims’ at mock disaster designed to help rescuers improve emergency response

Rescuers prepare humor writer Jeff Kramer for a backboard during the “Symphony of Disaster” drill at Syracuse’s Hancock International Airport in August. Photo by Bob Mescavage.

Manikens were also used to portray victims closer to the burning aircraft. Photo by Bob Mescavage.

By Jeff Kramer

I’m splayed out on the tarmac at Syracuse Hancock International Airport. Blood pours from a head wound. Okay, it’s fake blood, but still. I’m dizzy. I can’t walk. Maybe 50 yards away, the charred wreck of an airplane belches smoke and fire. Delirious, I demand to be compensated by the airlines for my troubles.

“I want a free round trip anywhere in the United States, including Hawaii and Alaska,” I holler.

See a slideshow of photos from the “Symphony of Disaster”

A triage officer pats me on the shoulder. “You know what?” he says. “Good luck.”

This is only a drill, of course, but it’s a big one. Some 44 local agencies and institutions, including Upstate Medical University, have joined the Aug. 11 exercise designed to simulate dual terror attacks at the airport and downtown Syracuse. My job is to be Patient No. 30. As a service to my country, I’ve given up a precious Saturday morning to help keep Central New York safe from disaster. That’s just how I roll.

My injuries are not considered particularly urgent. Just how not urgent will become clear in the next few hours, but for now my main concern is keeping my jealously in check. Candidly, I’d rather play the role of a burn victim. The burn injuries applied by the make-up department look amazing — super-realistic and grotesque. But hey, that’s life. At least I have blood on my forehead. Some of the volunteer patients get no makeup.

“My head hurts,” I tell a rescuer, who rushes past me.

The scenario is as follows: Not counting several dummy corpses, several dozen of us have escaped the jetliner, which is said to have been struck on the runway by a smaller plane piloted by terrorists and filled with dangerous chemicals. The info card attached to my person alerts first responders that my blood pressure is 140/90, my pulse is 110 and my skin is pale.

Humorist Jeff Kramer was among the ‘victims’ laying on the tarmac. Photo by Bob Mescavage.

A first wave of firefighters wearing metallic protective gear all but ignores me. Then another group of firefighters strolls past me in search of other victims. I yell for help. No one seems to hear.

The precious minutes tick away as the temperature on the tarmac inches up. Other victims are loaded into ambulances and taken to a pretend hospital. In time even the corpses receive aid. Then a crew starts removing the pyrotechnic effects from the wrecked fuselage of the jet. Still, I languish.

Finally rescuers roll me onto a backboard and lift me up — sort of. For all the weight I’ve lost, it turns out that I’m still on the heavy side when it comes to surviving a stretcher ride. The stretcher wobbles and tilts crazily to the left. More firefighters are added, then a few more. There’s a lot of groaning by all of us. At last equilibrium is achieved, and I am walked across the runway and set down amidst other victims in a triage area.

Can the medical attention I need be far away?


Someone in charge makes a snap judgment that someone else needs my backboard more than I do. I’m unstrapped and left sitting on the tarmac again.

Maybe 20 minutes later — who’s counting at this point? — an Upstate doctor examines me and concludes I am in really bad shape after all. He orders me strapped to a more substantial gurney, this time with a cervical collar clamped around my neck for good measure.

Utterly immobile, I lie on my back broiling in the sun near two similarly encumbered victims pleading for help — our tones a little less make-believe than before. Rescuers, ascertaining that the new danger is sunstroke, shield us with tarps.

At long last a doctor pronounces the drill effectively over. There will be no medical transport to a pretend hospital for me or for Brittany Wilson, a Cicero-North Syracuse High School student (broken knee, second-degree burns). We are unceremoniously told to walk under our own power to a yellow school bus that shuttles us back to the staging area where my car is parked. About two hours have gone by since the “crash.”

An observer with the state Department of Health concedes, “There were logjams with this today, and you should have been out of there quicker. But that happens.”

Indeed, in the reverse logic of a disaster drill, failure is often a good thing.

You’re looking for vulnerabilities so they can be addressed before a real disaster hits. For example, Syracuse would run short of hospital beds in a major calamity, meaning patients would have to be transported — even by helicopter — to places such as Albany, Rochester and beyond.

I’m proud to have done my part to confirm the soft underbelly of our emergency response system. Next time, though, I want the helicopter ride.

Notepad in hand, humor writer Jeff Kramer plays the role of Patient No. 30 during the disaster drill. Photo by Bob Mescavage.

See a slideshow of photos from the “Symphony of Disaster”

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