An inside look at the Union Station disaster simulation. At times, it was hard to tell ‘what’s real and what’s not’

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An inside look at the Union Station disaster simulation. At times, it was hard to tell ‘what’s real and what’s not’


There’s a man, dark blood dripping from his neck, groaning on the concourse floor.

And a woman, hands clasped desperately on the wound, crying out: “Why won’t anyone help him!”

There’s a grey woollen blanket draped over someone else, the red and black soles of his sneakers peaking out one end.

Paramedics rush past, the casters on their wheeled stretcher clickety clacking back and forth.

Then the fire alarm bleats and lights start to flash on the ceiling.

During the lost hour when clocks moved back in the dead of the night Sunday, something terrifying happened in Union Station.

Gun shots rang out. Bodies were splayed on the ground everywhere: in the Newmarket GO train, on the number three platform and at the bottom of the concrete stairs leading down into Canada’s busiest transit hub.

It happened and it didn’t happen — because it was a simulation.

It was 2 a.m. and we were all acting like it was mid-rush hour on a Friday afternoon. Then it was 1 a.m. again and the firefighters were coiling up their hoses, the gunshot victims were grabbing a bite to eat while the adrenalin wore off.

Across the city, people got an extra hour’s sleep. Inside Union Station, that hour didn’t happen. Sunday’s 25th hour was erased when our phones automatically turned back. But for us, it was an hour that could not so easily be forgotten.

A training exercise. The biggest ever organized by Metrolinx and involving Toronto police, fire and paramedics. More than 150 volunteer victims and bystanders, 200 first responders. And five deaths (Not really).

Planned for the middle of the night to ensure minimal disruption while preparing emergency workers for the worst disruption anyone could imagine.

Journalists have been invited to observe. Not just for public relations, but also because if there were a real downtown disaster, we would be there and everyone needs to know how to deal with us while also doing their jobs.

A man wearing a reflective vest with the word “observer” where you’d expect to see “FBI” calls out a six-minute warning. The victims take up their positions seated in the train, lying on the platform, leaning against the wall. A makeup artist does her last round with a spray bottle full of fake blood, refreshing the wounds that have been so meticulously reconstructed.

Upon an unheard signal, they start groaning and crying out. There are the footfalls of arriving first responders and the ominous growling of their radios. The cacophony of emergency begins.

Who volunteers to stay up late on a Saturday night and pretend to be mortally wounded? College students, mostly, it seems. But also nurses and their nieces. And their niece’s best friend.

A volunteer victim receives care. The emergency exercise was the largest joint emergency exercise ever organized by Metrolinx.

Several of them tell me they want to be police officers and think being part of this will look good on a resume. Edward O’Beirne says he’s doing it for the professional development hours he needs to keep up his Certified Protection Officer designation.

It’s not the first time aspiring firefighter David Figueroa has been fitted with a cervical collar and strapped onto a backboard. But it is the first time he’ll do so while wearing full makeup and having to endure the process for upwards of two hours.

“I want to understand what it’s like from the perspective of a victim,” he said. “To be immobilized for so long, it’s going to be scary and uncomfortable.”

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Figueroa drove in with other St. John’s Ambulance volunteers from Burlington. He’s pretty sure the paramedics are going to cut his pants off to better assess his injuries and he forgot to bring a change of clothes.

“It’s going to be an interesting ride home.”

We never see the shooter. He’s been “taken down,” we’re told. The action movie sequence isn’t what concerns them here. It’s the cleanup.

A mass choreography of hundreds of professionals from different agencies, all trained to run toward danger when everything in your being tells you to run away.

It’s less than 24 hours after veteran Toronto Fire Captain Jim Warren crashed through the roof of a burning building on Shuter St. He’s still in critical condition and here are all his colleagues, reporting for duty.

Traumatic memories rarely play out sequentially, they say. They’re more like snapshots. Vignettes that keep resurfacing for those who have seen too much.

There’s a blur of fluorescent green vests and orange emergency blankets. Gory wounds exposed momentarily by a paramedic peeking under a bandage. A man lying still at the bottom of a flight of stairs who looks dead but for the barely perceptible rise and fall of his chest.

They’ve driven fire trucks right up onto the tracks. Hoses snake down the platform.

The Great Hall was a busy place as 250 emergency personnel and 150 volunteers were on hand for the exercise.

The smoke machines set up to simulate a fire have set off the fire alarm. There’s been a mechanical failure and they can’t get the water to flow. It’s getting hard to tell what’s real and what’s not.

Whenever you have so many people rushing about simulating an emergency, there’s always a chance a real emergency might happen. They’ve got a code word for it: “No duff.” One time a made-up victim started hyperventilating, having an anxiety attack. Everyone thought she was just a really good actor.

I step back to let a firefighter by and knock over a halligan bar — the weighty metal pry bar emergency services use to tear their way into a car or rip open a door. I stumble but don’t fall. It’s not the kind of thing you’d want to fall onto.

The cameras gather around a Metrolinx spokesperson, who explains there was a second shooter but he’s been apprehended. All trains are cancelled. They’re organizing buses to get people home.

They finally get the fire hoses working and start spraying. The water flows down onto the concourse.

Our press minder looks confused on a phone call. No one calls off the simulation.

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