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All hands on deck for Highway 99 tunnel drill

The SR 99 tunnel. (WSDOT)

Seattle first responders are going to be pushed to the max on Thursday as a full-scale emergency drill is carried out inside the new Highway 99 tunnel.

RELATED: Major closures planned for Highway 99 in January

It’s one of the last major testing hurdles before the tunnel can be opened to the public, a mass casualty training exercise designed to be as real as possible. It will start with a major crash inside the tunnel.

“We’ll have eight cars and three buses, and we’ll have upwards of 24 folks who are injured and they’ll actually have simulated makeup on to demonstrate those injuries and make it as realistic as possible for first responders,” said Brittany Miller, the deputy emergency manager for the Washington Department of Transportation.  “We’ll also have a number of other individuals that will be self-evacuating the tunnel — that will force us to have to do sweeps of the tunnel and make sure everybody gets out safely.”

The key to this exercise, Miller said, is to make sure all the different agencies work together.

“We picked this scenario on purpose, and it’s one of our most complex ones,” she said.  “It involves different levels of all of our responses so we’re going to get some really key lessons learned from this that we will use the time until the tunnel opening to incorporate those lessons learned into our plans and procedures and continue to refine them until the tunnel does open.”

Captain Eric Sanu with the Seattle Police Department said it’s essential to take their preparations off the tabletop and put them into action with this simulation.

“Just to see how we can maneuver our vehicles in there,” he said.  “How we can maneuver fire vehicles, police vehicles, tow trucks and tow buses and cars out of there if need be.”

But Captain Sanu admitted there is one variable that they cannot prepare for.

“One thing we cannot predict is human behavior,” he said.  “We don’t know what’s going to happen when people see a deluge system in front of them.”

That x-factor won’t be known until the first real emergency inside the tunnel.

If you are in South Lake Union near the north portal of the tunnel on Thursday, expect to see a lot of activity and emergency responders. WSDOT will publicize the start and end of the drill on social media channels.

The tunnel is expected to open to traffic in early 2019, about three weeks after January 11.  That’s when Highway 99 will be shut down through downtown Seattle to give WSDOT the time to connect all the ramps and finish the roadway.

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