Editor’s Note: This narrative was written from the perspective of someone involved in the drill in the role of a civilian experiencing the disaster being simulated.
HARRISONBURG — James Madison University’s Bridgeforth Stadium is home to Saturday night football games and crowds of cheering fans.
As patrons find their seats to view the two teams play against one another, the stadium is filled with a background noise of conversation — some playful, some opposing the winning team.
Monday morning was no exception.
More than 100 people gathered on the second floor of the stadium where the field could be seen from an angle.
Family, friends and those just in it for the experience waited at tables, looked out of windows and took in the bright purple stadium seats with an illuminating video scoreboard above them.
As the morning went on, the chatter of each other’s voices began to silence as the sound of what seemed to be a firecracker went off in the enclosed space.
The packed room began to fill with dense smoke near the kitchen, acknowledging the gas explosion that has occurred seconds before the mood changed.
It was time to begin the drill.
The sound of chairs falling to the ground blended into piercing shriek of the fire alarm, lighting up the walls with its bright, yellow flash.
Actors looked at one another, dazed and confused, unaware of what the next step should be.
Manikins laid on the floor closest to the explosion.
Actors with white paint on their face pretended to lay motionless — they represented those near the explosion but not beside it.
As the fire alarm continued to hum, creating a new background noise suitable for the situation, those who could walk began to gather themselves and move toward the exits.
Families were separated, friends were split up as every exit in the room became an escape route.
Those who were acting as non-injured walked through the maze of tables, chairs and bodies laying dormant until found.
A nurse, Ann Simmons, took a steady few steps toward those closest to the explosion, getting a closer look as to what had happened.
Simmons checked wounds, lifted those who could stand up to their feet and led them to the back exit entering the Champions Drive parking deck.
As she grew closer, she was guided by event staff out of the building and to the parking deck, where more than a dozen people sat across the concrete wall. Those who were not extensively injured took refuge on the deck’s second-floor entrance waiting for help to arrive.
The mood of the building had intensified.
Men, women and children walked around the parking deck with wounds fully visible unaware of what was to happen next.
“Someone help me.”
“I need help.”
“Why is nobody helping us? What happened?”
The phrases of confusion and peril echoed off the walls hoping to be heard.
Nearly 10 minutes had gone by since the explosion and those waiting in the parking deck were escorted down the stairs to the main floor of the deck.
Concrete was traded for grass and pavement. The first glimpse of natural light appeared and with it came rows of red fire trucks that had lined the street.
Jake Krug, one of the actors, was told to play a panicked victim, appearing and disappearing before those on scene could identify him.
From the parking deck, he screamed, “What’s going on? Where are EMS? Nobody is helping us; when is someone going to help us?”
The words trickled out of his mouth on repeat, saying the phrases every chance he could get.
He had a minor injury to his leg. The one moment of calmness breezed by him as he was reunited with his companion, but she too was injured and the panic returned to him.
Some actors took their part to heart, approaching officials to get help and assistance, while others laid motionless, appearing to be in a state of shock.
The rain held out on the crowd, luckily, and officials continued to tag people with either green, yellow or red plastic bands to identify the extent of their injuries.
Those deemed as “green” crowded together on a green tarp, watching those deemed “red” and “yellow” be transported to a different location.
As the initial reactions began to fade, those who could talk were escorted onto the football field, where they were greeted by the rest of the actors.
Instead of the sound of “somebody help me,” actors began to cry, “I thought I would never see you again.”
More than an hour had passed since the makeshift explosion occurred, leaving actors to play the victim and officials to get to work.
Real-life reactions were put to the test, leaving all who had participated in a comforted peace of mind that the exercise that took place was treated and observed by the right people.