Mock Disaster Replaced By the Real Thing

By: Joe Strupp

Journalism instructors at Syracuse University were hoping to test their students’ performance under pressure this summer when they planned a surprise mock chemical spill and building evacuation on campus. But the professors got a surprise of their own as, before the scheduled emergency could begin, the real thing occurred.

“It was very surreal and very confusing,” Amber Smith, an adjunct professor at the university’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications in Syracuse, N.Y., said about the event. “It was a real fluke.”

The mock disaster, held annually for the last four years, had been organized by Smith and other journalism professors as an exercise in spot-news reporting for about 100 students. The students were told that morning that the fictional emergency drill would occur at 10 a.m. and involve the accidental mixing of ammonia and bleach in a campus building, causing an evacuation and resulting in some students becoming ill.

However, two hours before the planned emergency was to start, a real chemical scare took place when brown puddles began forming inside the campus’ biological-research center, forcing an actual evacuation and the need for police, fire, and hazardous-materials crews.

At one point, several drama students who were to have portrayed students needing medical attention during the mock drill were laid low by the 90-degree heat and required real first aid. “One student — who was supposed to play a student having an asthma attack — had an asthma attack,” Smith added.

The real-life diversion caused the journalism department to cancel one aspect of the drill, the detonation of a fake suspected bomb. “We thought that would be too much,” Smith said.

After several hours, the puddles turned out to be nothing but rusty water and the building reopened. Smith said the real news of the day likely taught students more than any drill could: “They learned that the ability to bob and weave and react is important.”

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