How would authorities respond if a plane crashed near the Meadowlands? What agencies would get involved? How would they speak with one another — and with a public desperate for information about their loved ones?
N.J. State Police Superintendent Col. Rick Fuentes and state Homeland Security Director Richard Canas began considering these questions after a corporate jet smashed through a fence at Teterboro Airport and skidded across a nearby highway in 2005.
Then came this January’s “Miracle on the Hudson,” which helped give the Cliffview Pilot its name.
“What if Capt. Sullenberger had tried to make Teterboro and hadn’t?” Fuentes asked dozens of state and federal officials and staff gathered at Giants Stadium this morning for an unprecedented skull session.
Although several protocols were in place before Flight 1549’s Hudson River crash landing in January, Canas said, authorities needed a thoroughly coordinated approach.
So they gathered officials and experts from various agencies, including the FBI, State Police, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Gov. Corzine’s office, the NTSB, and the state Medical Examiner’s Office.
The exercise — tagged “Operation Flameout” — posed the scenario of a plane crashing around 10 p.m. in Rutherford’s Station Square: Eighty-one passengers and five crew members are all presumed dead; an unknown number of people on the ground are dead or severely injured.
Several agencies would be contacted at once, including Rutherford police, the Port Authority and in-state federal officials.
But that’s the easy part.
“Sometimes a response that’s too aggressive can clog a system,” Fuentes said.
“People got a lot more competent as first responders after 9-11,” the colonel explained in an interview before the “tabletop” exercise. “Everybody came away [from 9-11] saying we have to find a way to measure the response, to coordinate a bit better.”
All of the primary officials agreed that the nerve center would be the State Police Regional Operations Intelligence Center in West Trenton. Those gathered would include emergency management coordinators, the state’s Office of Homeland Security and the FBI.
Their initial roles would be “to get out of the way and let the experts handle things,” Canas said.
“You’re going to get your best information from the people covered in soot,” including fire chiefs, Fuentes said
“We’re going to be very much driven by what those commanders on scene are going to be doing, and what they’re going to ask us to be doing,” the colonel said. “We want to be sure we have a full understanding of what’s going on on the ground.”
A command center near the crash would be established, so that the various agencies know where the report, as would a media staging area would be established, so that all the public information would be funneled to — and through — a single source.
“We don’t want to rush to the podium,” said State Police Lt. Gerald Lewis. “We need to have the subject matter experts there first.”
With that approach, Canas said, “the chances are less that [the media] will go off on their own.”
While first responders — police, fire, EMTs and others — handled immediate needs, the FBI and NTSB would team up to investigate right away, said Weysan Dun, who runs the New Jersey office of the FBI. State and local police would be notified, as well as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
The Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office also would deploy more than five dozen officers and detectives from its tactical squad and arson task force.
NTSB officials would get to the scene as quickly as possible if it involved the type of scenario outlined today, said Eric Grosof, the assistant to the board’s director.
Dun, meanwhile, told state Medical Examiner Victor Weedn that he’d prefer to “pair up” with the M.E.’s office in dealing with victims’ remains, for investigative purposes.
However, Weedn, who has direct supervision of six of New Jersey’s 20 county medical examiner’s offices, said he’d “insert ourselves” directly into the heart of the investigation.
“There’s a potential role for fingerprints. There’s a potential role for DNA,” Weedn said.
Despite the situation, however, the task would remain of identifying all victims and making sure loved ones are notified as quickly as possible, the medical examiner said.
Easier task now
In the hours — even days — after 9/11, loved ones of those on board the ill-fated planes initially weren’t given names. Part of the problem was the industry’s practice of allowing people to use others’ tickets.
But that’s changed.
“In today’s world, with e-ticketing, we can have a manifest form the carrier usually within 30 to 40 minutes,” Grosof said. “The accuracy we’ve seen in our drills is 88 to 90 precent.”
“But I have to stress: It’s for investigative purposes only,” he added, citing privacy issues and protocols.
“The intent here is to protect the families,” Grosof said. “The last thing we want is [someone] in Rutherford being told a relative has died when it was really [someone] from Rochester.”
Once that information is gathered and verified, notifications can then be made, he said.
At that point, the group agreed, the task begins for medical examiners and public health officials — to give victims’ loved ones the information they need, to keep them involved in the process, and to provide any necessary services in their time of grief.
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