PRINCE GEORGE – Last Tuesday morning was slated to be a relatively quiet affair in Prince George County, with a heavy fog blanketing the region as the county’s first responders started their morning and began another day of service to county residents and, if needed, their neighbors. 

5:22 a.m. would change that dynamic in a matter of seconds as a New York-bound charter bus with nearly sixty people on board overturned at Exit 45 just south of the Interstate 295 interchange, springing every facet of the county’s public safety presence, along with a number of supporting agencies into action. 

In an interview, Fire and EMS Director Brad Owens explained what was dispatched as a motor vehicle accident quickly became a situation where more resources would be needed and they needed to be available immediately.

“We were dispatched as normal to a motor vehicle accident and, initially, there wasn’t a lot of information that was given so our typical response to a motor vehicle accident is sending a volunteer fire company and a medic unit,” he said, adding the Carson substation was near the accident scene so they all responded.

“As some of the units began to arrive, that’s when we started to get more information like it was a bus that was involved and multiple people were affected, and it was then that our units were on scene and giving updates on the number of patients, and as we got that information, that is what led us to declare a mass casualty incident,” Owens said, explaining that the declaration shifts resources into a triage situation, given the sheer number of injuries, which Virginia State Police later said ranged from minor to serious. When faced with at least a few dozen patients at one scene, it can overwhelm a responding agency and its emergency responders.

“When you have an enormous amount of people that all have various types of injuries and, the most important thing is to sort it out and see who is the most critical and those are the ones we start focusing on first,” Owens detailed. “Once we start doing that through the triage process, we start sending the most critical patients to the hospital first, to the closest, most appropriate facility. Then we start getting into the ones who are next in line, the less severe, all the way down to those with bumps and scrapes.”

Providing a look behind the curtain in terms of how a mass casualty situation works, Owens said once that is declared, Richmond’s VCU Medical Center becomes “medical control” for the incident, with their role being determining which patients are going to which hospitals in the region as to not overwhelm one medical facility.

According to Owens, the way the county’s emergency services is currently laid out, they are capable of handling five to six different calls with no major issues but, “when you have 55 people, it is a gamechanger.”

“Our first responders acted very quickly and their training kicked in and they knew this is going to overwhelm us very quickly, let’s go ahead and call for additional resources now because we know we are going to need them,” he explained. 

As the event unfolded, as is protocol, once notified, Owens and a number of staff members made their way to the scene but, at the same time, the county’s typical call load to emergency services began to come into dispatch even as the vast majority of the county’s emergency personnel were gathered at Exit 45 treating patients. With that unfolding, Owens said the call was made to activate the county’s emergency operations center to help manage the situation along I-95 but also address incoming unrelated calls for service, adding they declared a local emergency and brought in a number of resources on a regional and state level based on the type of emergency. 

From there, they called in career fire and EMS staff early for their shifts, along with issuing an all-call to volunteers for their help in maintaining services across the county as other units remained on scene at Exit 45. In addition, two more EMS transport units were brought into the county so help answer some of the county’s call, with units from Chesterfield and Henrico jumping in to help.

As they evaluated the situation in I-95, a realization was made that some form of a central location was needed to gather people affected by the crash together so they can reconnect with their families, thus was born the reunification center at the Central Wellness Center in Disputanta.

“In the early stages of the response, we didn’t know where it was from or where it was going but we knew we had a bus with a lot of people with family members trying to contact to see what was going on,” Owens said, explaining the county’s sheltering manager and Prince George Department of Social Services Director Shel Douglas gathered her team and they immediately got the community building ready to house crash victims, with the American Red Cross also aiding in the process of helping passengers settle in and find some comfort in the midst of a crisis.

In most communities, a place of shelter in an emergency, be it a natural disaster or man-made, shelters are typically held in schools but, in Prince George at the time of the incident, schools were preparing to open for students, taking them off the table as a reunification center. For Owens, having the Central Wellness Center available played a pivotal role in the county’s post-accident response, given its space and its proximity to U.S. Route 460 and Interstates 95 & 295.

“Up until a few years ago, we did not have that,” Owens said. “Our plan right now still calls for a sheltering-type of event – a hurricane or tornado that wiped out some homes and people will be displaced for many days – to utilize schools as that shelter. If we do that, we know it impacts schools because that whole area can’t be utilized by the students, so if we close the schools, now we are affecting the youth of our community when we do that.”

“The fact that we had the Central Wellness Center,” Owens continued, “which the county has been investing over the last couple of years … to have that resource there was a perfect opportunity to bring a lot of people together very quickly, we’re not sure where they will be coming from and we don’t know what our needs are but we know need to get them to the CWC, get them food, refreshments, and support from other entities.”

One of the challenges first responders faced during their response to the scene and later as they worked at the CWC to reconnect them with their families was a language barrier, with Owens noting a number of passengers on the bus were of Asian descent. With this, the county once again turned to its partners to assist.

“Many of the patients on the bus did not speak English,” he said. “Our shelter coordinator Shel Douglas sent out an email from the reunification center to our county staff asking for any resources for translators. We didn’t know what type of language we would need to be translated so we were trying to narrow that down.”

Those calls were answered by people from across the county and region as and that left a lasting impression on Owens as he recounted the response to one of the largest incidents in the county’s recent memory.

“It was tremendous the number of people who stepped up to help out in this incident,” he said. “The response from the people to the requests we sent out during this situation was tremendous and it speaks volumes to the support that our locality has from its regional partners, from our citizens, from private entities who all came in and helped out in these situations.”

A week on from the crash, things have somewhat returned to normal in the county but the impact of what happened remains as those who responded to the scene or helped at the CWC are likely to not forget this incident for years to come. For Owens, when looking back at the response, he has nothing but praise for the life-saving efforts of the county’s emergency crews and all the work they did to treat passengers and help reduce the number of casualties in this deadly crash, paired with the support of several localities, along with dispatchers who remained calm under the pressure of coordinating the response along Exit 45 and managing the county’s other emergency service needs.

“I am very proud of our response system and our emergency responders,” he said. “They definitely showed that their training kicked in and they came together and worked together toward the same mission for people they don’t even know. They all knew we had a bad situation and we need to make it better so I am very proud of each and every one of them for what they did to make this situation better.”

Owens added, “I am also proud of the response from our regional partners. As we started making those requests, there was no hesitation, they stepped up and provided everything that they could to make this incident run as smoothly as it did,” noting, thanks to all of the efforts of everyone locally and regionally, they had the situation under control in under two hours. 

“To have that magnitude of an incident under control in two hours is just remarkable,” he said. “It speaks volumes to our response system, to our emergency responders, our regional partners, and the programs and processes that we have in place right now that we have in place to handle situations like this.”

“I am grateful for the partnerships, for those who stepped up and responded, and it makes me proud to be part of such a great team out here in Prince George County,” Owens closed. 

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Copyright 2019 by Womack Publishing