SALT LAKE CITY — When an airplane crashes, the impact is rarely the worst part.
The most dangerous part of a crash landing, Salt Lake Fire Capt. Cory Huffman said, comes when fuel cells in the aircraft's wings rupture, causing the plane to quickly catch fire.
The impact of a crash landing often is survivable, he said, and most people killed in such crashes die from the fire or smoke inhalation.
Huffman was one of 25 Aircraft Rescue Fire Fighting crews who participated in a safety drill Friday at Salt Lake City International Airport. The firefighters responded to a scenario where a Delta flight between San Francisco and Chicago suffered hydraulic failure and was forced to make an emergency landing.
The scenario is part of Federal Aviation Administration training required every three years. To complete the large-scale scenario, the Salt Lake airport worked with the Transportation Security Administration, Utah Air National Guard, Gold Cross Ambulance and all airlines operating at the airport.
At a practice facility just north of the airport, firefighters quickly surrounded a mock-up of a midsize airplane engulfed in flames and began hosing it down to suppress the flames from a simulated fuel leak.
Nearby, other emergency responders sifted through luggage and pieces of fuselage strewn across a field. Their job was to begin triage for 65 volunteers and dozens more inflatable dummies dressed to show varying degrees of injury.
A medical helicopter landed near the practice field, and ambulances began taking away those most seriously injured, while a bus was prepared to evacuate other survivors.
"As realistically as possible, we are trying to re-create a medium-sized commercial aircraft crash," Huffman said. "We learn any lessons we can and make sure we're doing the best we can for the flying public."
In a real-life scenario, as many as 150 airport firefighters would be on hand to assist with the emergency, not just the small crew, he said.
Airport spokeswoman Nancy Volmer said Salt Lake city and county leaders, as well as state emergency preparedness officials, would also step in to help.
Volmer said there is always a "plan on paper" for how to deal with airport accidents, but it takes realistic practice to find where mistakes in the plan may exist and help officials understand how to work together smoothly in the event of a major emergency.
"Our hope is that this would not happen at (Salt Lake City International Airport)," Volmer said. "But if it were to happen, we would be prepared, and we would have the assurance of the passengers, the public and employees that we have a plan in place."