A major disaster preparedness drill orchestrated though all city departments Friday morning built around a simulated explosion at the wastewater treatment plant resulting in a plume of chlorine gas wafted toward two schools – Sierra High and Brock Elliott – along with Costco and the Big League Dreams Sports Park helped sharpen municipal response for future catastrophes.
Fire Department Battalion Chief David Marques spent a year setting the stage for the test to assess the city’s ability to face major catastrophes such as the Paradise and Santa Rosa wild fires, floods, earthquakes and man-made disasters.
Over 100 city workers started the event in an auditorium watching a video that described the day ahead. Fire engines, ambulances and police vehicles raced to the water treatment plant off of West Yosemite Avenue west of Airport Way. The first fire crew to arrive donned hazmat suits and searched for one employee who was reported missing as the simulated chlorine cloud moved in a southeasterly direction toward the schools and the Highway 120 Bypass.
Police Captain Charlie Goeken, acting as the Section Chief for the event, said he had called the CHP and asked for their officers to block the onramps to the freeway to prevent more vehicles driving into the cloud zone where they might ingest the errant gas cloud.
Goeken questioned the lack of gas masks in city vehicles that would protect other city workers from the deadly fumes they might find themselves driving into its mist. In addition to CHP, mutual aid came from surrounding departments including Tracy Police and the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Department. In a Facebook advisory warning the public, he asked that they turn air conditioners off that could draw the gas into their homes.
Officials cringed at the thought of mass evacuations of the schools and homes in the area noting there were not enough personnel within the city to take people out of their surroundings. They opted instead to have them shelter in place and not go outside.
Police Sergeant Joe Ahuna – public information for the event – said the chlorine explosion seemed like it had been intentionally set off. He added that shortly after the explosion a major fight had erupted at the intersection of South Main Street and Moffat Boulevard where shots had been fired resulting in three fatalities along with one injured police officer. Officials noted there was reason to believe the explosion might have been related to a similar event in Buffalo, N.Y. last week.
There were no casualties at the scene of the simulated explosion and the missing water plant employee was later located and had not reported to work Friday morning.
A debriefing was held among department heads at the conclusion of the drill led by Battalion Chief Marques where the successes of the drill were discussed and ideas put forth on how the city could improve in their next drill. At the conclusion of the debriefing session Mayor Ben Cantu stood at the back of the room telling the department heads that after seeing their extensive efforts he felt safe living in Manteca.
The Manteca Senior Center on Cherry Land behind city hall and the police department was set up to be the evacuation center for displaced citizenry.
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