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Exclusive: Port Authority Staged Realistic-Looking Emergency Response Exercise At Holland Tunnel On Sunday

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- You may have noticed smoke, fire and first responders at the Holland Tunnel during the overnight hours into Sunday. The Port Authority closed one tube of the tunnel for an emergency response exercise.

CBS2's Jenna DeAngelis got an exclusive look at the training to keep you safe if terror were to strike.

It sounded and certainly looked like a real explosion, but it was only a drill.

What CBS2 witnessed was emergency responders playing out a real-life scenario at the Holland Tunnel -- a terrorist attack.

Holland Tunnel exercise
The Port Authority staged an emergency response exercise during the early morning hours on march 31, 2019. (Photo: CBS2)

"Any day, any hour, this could happen," said Steven Pawlak, senior manager of emergency readiness at Port Authority.

One way the Port Authority and its partners prepare for that scary reality is through emergency response exercises -- by testing plans already in place if a significant incident were to happen.

One tube of the Holland was closed Saturday night into Sunday for the training. Enrique Ramirez, the general manager of the tunnel, set the scene.

"The scenario is that there was an explosion on the toll plaza," Ramirez said. "After the explosion there's motor vehicle accidents. We have overturned vehicles. You have wounded people. We have some fatalities."

In the extrication exercise, the trapped victims were just mannequins, but there were about 50 volunteers on the simulated scene, starting with makeup, bringing a little Hollywood to the Holland.

"You want to make it as realistic as possible," Port Authority Police Officer Filipe Oliveira said.

"We try to simulate the injury as much as possible for the drill," Oliveira added. "You can carry that over to a real-life scenario and use your training to assist the victims."

To that point, volunteer actors like Kato Figueroa were told to play the part the entire exercise. First responders were trying to calm down the victims until more help arrived on scene.

"You have to scream. You have to make the emotions because we have to train our first responders," Figueroa said, adding when asked what made him want to volunteer, "I wanted to give back to the community. I'm a survivor from 9/11."

He has made it his mission to help others through volunteer work with United Rescue Jersey City and other community organizations.

"You never know when the next thing can happen. I'd rather be helping somebody than not," Figueroa said.

Many of the other actors had a similar mindset as students, volunteers or aspiring first responders.

The tunnels closed during the drill, but the scenario is that it's a weekday and this is the morning rush so just imagine the area filled with cars.

"There's probably about seven or eight different nuances to this exercise. Everything from the firefighting to the extrication to the criminal investigative piece to traffic control," Pawlak said.

And every part of the exercise, along with every minute, counts, including something that seems as simple as suiting up.

Nothing about putting the gear on is easy. It's important for protection, but it makes the job that much harder for firefighters.

"It's heavy gear … tops out at around 60 pounds," said Richard Michitsch, senior technical trainer with Technical Training Academy.

And what happens when the gear comes off, the simulated scene is cleared and the smoke settles?

"We'll review the data from the exercise, modify plans if we need it," Pawlak said. "Anything to make the response that much better."

All with you, the commuter, in mind, and all in the name of safety.

The Port Authority conducts about 30 different exercises or trainings per year, including active-shooter exercises, command and control. What DeAngelis saw was one of its biggest full-scale exercises. The agency does four of those annually.

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