Old Turnpike tunnel renowned for realistic emergency training
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - After ferrying millions of travelers on the West Virginia Turnpike, the now-bypassed and shuttered Memorial Tunnel in southern Kanawha County has become an underground bunker holding some of the worst disasters known to man.
Fortunately, they are only simulations.
For the past decade, the West Virginia National Guard has used the 2,800-foot tunnel through Paint Creek Mountain as a worst-case scenario training ground for troops and first responders.
Now known as the Center for National Response, the facility has helped both military and civilian responders get as close as they can to on-the-job disaster training.
Groups from around the country are sending personnel to West Virginia to train in the facility.
"We get them from East Coast to West Coast, from New York to Seattle," said Major Gen. James Hoyer, adjutant general of the West Virginia National Guard.
"In all, about 160,000 first responders have been trained by West Virginians."
Hoyer and other Guard leaders took Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Joe Manchin, along with Rep. Nick Rahall, all D-W.Va., on a tour of the facility Monday afternoon.
The center has 10 disaster training areas. A few - such as a bunker, airplane fuselage and mountain cabin complex - are on the 10,000 acres of land surrounding the tunnel.
Inside the tunnel, the Guard has set up several staging areas for simulating several scenarios, including up to a 50-car pileup wreck complete with hazardous materials, mobile methamphetamine or other chemical labs and a functional subway station.
The subway station - which Hoyer refers to as "West Virginia's only working subway system" - includes a blast simulation that recreates the effect of an underground explosion in a major metropolitan area.
"We've had first responders from New York City who were some of the first folks in the World Trade Center come into our post-blast rubble scenario, and they tell us it's as realistic as what they encountered on 9/11," Hoyer said.
As visitors begin walking up the 2 percent grade at the south end of the tunnel, they come first to the vehicular haz-mat staging area - the facility's primary venue.
Hoyer said center trainers have worked intently over the years to make the facility as close to the real thing as possible. Some have gone to Universal Studios and Walt Disney World in Florida to receive training from movie professionals.
The Guard has an arrangement with a local salvage yard to bring in vehicles used in wreck scenarios.
They've worked with chemists to make sure simulated contamination areas are as realistic as possible. Those areas also are lined with images of some foreign country leaders and examples of each nation's writing to help responders identify where materials may have come from.
A two-story structure looks like a Main Street shop you might see at an amusement park. It can be used for training on tactical operations, with the interiors arranged in various ways to simulate different scenarios.
A man-made cave simulation about halfway through the tunnel is used to recreate ammunition compounds in Afghanistan or domestic drug hideouts.
"We can represent Tora Bora, or it could be a cave in the United States that's used for drug running," Hoyer said.
Rockefeller said the key is to test people not just on the procedures for responding to a situation, but also for the psychological stressors they may face.
Hoyer agreed, saying a young man or woman going into the field must overcome the anxiety over what they're about to face.
"The opportunity to come in here and train ahead of time, I don't know if we can put a number on how many lives we've saved," Hoyer said.
"I'm pretty confident that we've helped keep young men and women from across the United States alive, and we've done it all with West Virginia ingenuity and capability."
The underground subway station includes two cars acquired from Boston.
The station features not just the rail line, but also a station with turnstiles and an eatery. Those areas are to help personnel learn to navigate the station with their equipment.
The entire facility is equipped with cameras that allow people in remote areas to view the training scenarios.
Hoyer said that's allowed larger cities to do large-scale disaster training in part by remote in West Virginia.
"Chicago was going through a lot of training related to subway search and extraction capabilities," Hoyer said. "However, they can't shut the subway down in Chicago.
"We used the camera system to live-feed it back to their op center in Chicago," he said. "What's happening is at the tunnel they're extracting casualties, and in Chicago they're putting the same casualty into the hospital system."
The congressional delegation was impressed with the tour, and all said they were committed to maintaining the necessary funding to keep it open.
Rahall said the country was getting the "best bang for the buck" by doing training here, versus what could be more expensive training at a facility that would need to be constructed.
"You could never go and build something like this to have a real-life scenario," he said. "To have this here and to use it for the United States of America and not just West Virginia, I think it means a tremendous amount to the security of our nation."
Rockefeller said the facility could prove invaluable as more and more groups at home and abroad realize the need for full-scale disaster training.
"It's very realistic and very well done, by very professional people at very low cost," he said.
"It's much more efficient than the Air Force and the Navy," he said.
"They're much more efficient and much more cost effective - more than 50 percent less expensive for the same type of work, and as a percentage of the DOD (U.S. Department of Defense) budget, it's virtually nothing.
"It's a real bargain for the military and the Guard," he said.
Contact writer Jared Hunt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5148.