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WATERLOO | United Flight 232 was supposed to go from Denver, Colo., to Chicago. A major mechanical malfunction, though, disabled the aircraft, and the pilot, Al Haynes, brought the DC-10 down 25 years ago at the Sioux City Gateway Airport.

The plane broke apart and created a huge fireball.

The aircraft carried 285 passengers and crew. Of those, 189 survived.

Mike Wilson, director of the Waterloo Regional Airport, recently heard Haynes talk about the incident. Haynes addressed the Iowa Public Airport Association in April.

Volunteers and professionals poured into the Sioux City airport back then to help.

"It was just amazing how it came together. The community support was amazing," Wilson said.

The Waterloo Regional Airport and 27 agencies rehearsed just such a crash Wednesday evening. A large-scale training exercise is required by the FAA every three years, and local officials staged an elaborate mock disaster.

The scenario featured a 68-person aircraft brought down by a microburst, a violent downdraft that doomed the simulated flight. A pair of Met Transit buses served as the broken fuselage on an actual taxiway, and volunteers played the role of deceased, severely injured and walking wounded. Some also played grieving family members waiting in the terminal for their loved ones.

Steve Warren, a training and exercise specialist with the Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said such crashes are rare. 

"The good problem to have is we don't see these incidents very often. But when they do happen, they really tax the local resources," Warren said.

Coordination is key, he added.

"If this event happened here, it would require a tremendous amount of staff, it would require a tremendous amount of equipment," Warren said.

The airport called on the sheriff's office, American Airlines, Iowa State Patrol, Livingston Aviation, Salvation Army, American Red Cross and air traffic control personnel. Volunteer firefighters and ambulance crews from Dunkerton, Raymond, Hudson, Gilbertville, Denver and Evansdale responded just as they would in a real emergency.

Organizers tried to make the event as realistic as possible. The wounded, for example, were transported to the three hospitals in Waterloo and Cedar Falls, where emergency workers also rehearsed their responses. Firefighters also lit a few fires in barrels to add another element to the mix.

Only a few planners, though, were privy to all that was going to happen. "A few wrenches" were held in reserve, according to Wilson, and the drill was scheduled to last five hours.

"We try to keep it realistic, so we haven't given out some details to the entities involved," he said.

Warren said some degree of the unknown is important.

"We just let them know, 'Hey, something bad is going to happen, and you're going to come in," he said.

Wilson in an earlier press release noted how busy the airport is getting.

"We saw the highest number of passengers depart Waterloo since June of 2009. We had 2,214 passenger departures which was a 40.5 percent increase over July, 2013," Wilson wrote in his message.

American Airlines recently upgraded its aircraft from 44 to 50 seats, Wilson said. The airline also adjusted flight times with better connections through Chicago.

"Year to date there have been 12,593 passenger departures out of Waterloo. This is an increase of 13 percent over the same period last year," Wilson added.

Opening the facility to emergency response personnel and law enforcement officials was a key part of Wednesday's mock disaster.

"The big thing is getting everyone into the airport and knowing where they are going," Wilson said.

Jessica Benson, 32, of Dike, and her three children -- McKayla, 13, Dakota, 6, and Laekyn, 4 -- volunteered as victims. The family viewed the drill as an opportunity to help and to better educate themselves on how airport officials respond in an emergency.

The issue is important to them. The kids will fly to Tennessee for spring break to see grandparents. So seeing the firefighters, paramedics, soldiers and police offered some peace of mind for herself and her children, Jessica Benson said.

"Then they'll know what to do," she added.

"It makes us feel safe that they know what they are doing," Benson added.

Helping train emergency responders is also dear to her heart. Benson's husband, Chris, is a volunteer firefighter in Dike.

Barb Heinze also volunteered. She got slathered in fake blood and spent time flat out on grass near the crash site. She wasn't entirely sure the medical definition of her fake injuries.

"Gasping breath, unconscious, deep burns," she said. "Sounds like a closed casket."

Heinze said her motivation was helping train people who might one day be called into service.

"I feel that it's really, really important that they have the exercise to give people the proper expertise," she said.

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Regional Editor for the Courier

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