Amid Chaos, Rescuers Worked with Precision

Drills helped prepare agencies, hospitals for explosion at plant

The hospital, which has only six regular beds and two additional ones for observation, saw four patients from Falk.

Among them were workers requiring a spleen removal, plastic surgery and treatment of minor cuts and bruises. As they were treating the patients, two heart patients unrelated to the Falk disaster showed up with chest pains.

"We were pushed to the max for our system," Motarjeme said. "But you plan for these things, and the reality is, it worked better today than we'd expected."

At Columbia St. Mary's, Kathy Herson, an emergency physician, had only a month ago read an article on blast injuries in a medical journal. On Wednesday, she was facing the real thing, and the treatment protocol was fresh in her mind.

"Obviously, this was a catastrophe," she said. "We had no idea how many people we'd get."

She learned of the Falk explosion from a co-worker at 8:30 a.m., and in a half-hour, the patients were arriving. The hospital had time to prepare the burn unit by moving six patients who were already there. As it turned out, the Falk patients all had minor injuries caused by debris. No burns.

She was glad to have patients.

"My biggest fear when you see this on TV and you get no victims is that they're all dead," she said.

At Froedtert, staff members immediately conducted a bed count and determined that the hospital could take eight of the most critically injured Falk patients and 24 in serious or stable condition. The hospital called in one physician, Stephen W. Hargarten, an emergency physician specializing in injuries.

After readying the hospital, the staff waited 30 minutes for the first patient to arrive. In the end, it treated nine patients for injuries including head lacerations, fractures and chest contusions. A 10th patient was transferred to the hospital later in the evening.

"We were prepared for many more patients, but in the end, it wasn't any more busy than on a typical day," said Schiestle, the charge nurse. "The problem is, you never know this until after it's over."

Lynn Schubert, safety manager for Aurora Health Care's Metro Region, was at the hospital's Cudahy location when her pager went off.

"I jumped into the car and headed back to St. Luke's Medical Center (in Milwaukee)," she said.

She got caught waiting for a train to cross, and when she arrived, the staff already had kicked into emergency mode.

There was a command center set up. Bed counts had been determined.

At 8:50 a.m., the first patient arrived by car. Not a Falk worker, but someone hit by flying glass.

"We do these drills all the time," Schubert said. "But you could tell that this was the real thing."

John Fauber, Susanne Rust and John Diedrich of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.

Copyright (c) 2006, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.