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W.Va. Turnpike tunnel serves as training grounds

BECKLEY, W.Va.--Dust filled the air and the sound of drills rang through the dimly lit Memorial Tunnel as emergency crews worked to pull out mannequins trapped in several different ways.

"Carry him, carry him!" yelled one responder with the South Carolina Urban Search and Rescue Task Force as another worked to pull a 150-pound mannequin out of an elevator shaft.

Although this was the first time this South Carolina group has trained at the former highway tunnel, they're not the first.

In its former life, the two-lane tunnel transported drivers traveling from Beckley to Charleston. It was closed to traffic in 1988, and the Federal Highways Administration modified it to conduct a fire ventilation test program, according to a brochure on the tunnel.

The tunnel went on to serve as storage for the West Virginia Turnpike and finally a training facility following the West Virginia Parkways Authority's decision to lease the tunnel to the West Virginia National Guard.

Lt. Col. Melissa Shade, with the West Virginia Air National Guard, explained military units, National Guard members, first responders and local law enforcement all visit the tunnel, located off Interstate 64 near Standard.

Near the facility is housing, where up to 77 people at a time call home. Crews stay from three to four days to up to two weeks at a time.

"There are different scenarios," Shade said. "There are scenarios with cars and people trapped. ... People from all over the world do training there. ... There's a trailer for biological agents, simulated meth labs. It offers a lot to first responders, police officers and firefighters."

In other situations, crews work with dogs. Duane Brock, with the South Carolina Urban Search and Rescue Task Force, was one of the crews working with dogs on training rescue missions.

Brock explained he and his fellow crewmembers worked to rappel the dogs down a 30-foot pipe to find victims.

"They love it," he said, with his dog, Jack, beside him.

"Lowering is difficult because they are suspended in the air and they wiggle around because it's not natural to be suspended, but their reward is finding the victim."

Other scenarios include terrorist situations in subway stations, movie theaters and restaurants, where teams have to figure out where chemicals are, according to a brochure on the tunnel.

There also is a simulated Afghanistan cave where weapons are hidden.

In the final stage is a collapsed parking garage where mannequins are trapped under concrete blocks and inside wrecked cars. 

Lt. Col. Bill Annie, with the Air National Guard, said teams have a methodical approach that governs the process in and out of the tunnel.

"They do everything from setting up command posts to setting up and planning their engagement in the tunnel to anything as simple as monitoring air quality for carbon monoxide," he said. "That's for safety purposes because we don't want the rescuers coming to the location and becoming victims of something that they're trying to minimize."

Contact writer Andrea Lannom at Andrea.Lannom@dailymail.com or 304-348-5148. Follow her at www.twitter.com/AndreaLannom.


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