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When disaster strikes

MARK — Police and rescue personnel throughout the surrounding area converged on Mennie Machine Co. in Mark on Sunday after Carl Spackler, a crazed gunman, shot and killed one person and held several others hostage for three hours.

Thankfully, it was actually only a drill.

The training exercise was conducted by the Putnam County Emergency Management Agency (PCEMA) with the Illinois Emergency Management Association and included representatives from law enforcement agencies from Bureau, Henry, Lee and Whiteside counties, as well as local emergency services and the Illinois Valley Special Response Team (SRT). Emergency drills are required for certification by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Homeland Security.

James Goldasich, director of PCEMA, explained the process.

“Our No. 1 priority today is safety. We have an overall safety officer, Chief Mike Skowera from Standard Fire Department, who will be in and around all the sites and has the authority to stop play at any time he deems it necessary,” Goldasich said. “As soon as it’s corrected, we can proceed.”

Putnam County Emergency Medical Services Director Andy Jackson was among the key personnel of the drill and was optimistic about the day.

“The only concern I have is it’s going to be busy on (Route) 71, and there’s probably going to be a lot of onlookers. And that’s a big concern, but with the signs out there, safety-wise, I think we should all be good,” Jackson said. “As far as with EMS, it should go smooth. This is a natural for us.”

The training scenario revolved around a disgruntled former worker who broke into the building after wiring up several pipe bombs around the building. He took hostages, including one girl who had a bomb strapped to her, and shot and wounded two victims, while killing a third. A half hour into the exercise, the worker “blew up” the mezzanine over the main entrance at Mennie’s. While it was all “make-believe,” it was also chillingly real.

“It’s being treated as a real event, of course,” Goldasich said.

The exercise was primarily written and supervised by PCEMA member Quentin Buffington.

“We had a request for law enforcement to be the first responders, so we decided with all the shootings lately, it was a good thing to do, to do a hostage situation. The SRTs suggested it, so we took that suggestion and ran with it,” said Buffington.

The hostages and shooting victims were played by members of the Putnam County High School FFA chapter, Neal Stasell, Shauna Wortz, Sara Moore, Ali Pletsch, Austin Pletsch, Kaylyn Donelson, Matt Donelson, Brad Wink and Megan Wink, along with FFA sponsor John Heiser. FFA member Samantha Smoode was fitted with a vest with several “pipe bombs” attached. The gunman was played by Lyle Calkins, a member of the Standard Fire Department and PCEMA.

Buffington was pleased with the response with local agencies and very grateful to Mennie’s Machine for the use of the facility.

“We couldn’t have done this without the people at Mennie’s,” Buffington said. “Anything we’ve asked, they’ve always said, ‘Whatever you need.’ They’ve always, always been big supporters.”

Valerie Keeney, human resources manager at Mennie’s, explained the company’s willingness.

“We’re happy to work with the emergency personnel. It gives us all a sense of security, plus it exposes them to our building and operation just in case something should actually happen here,” Keeney said.

Mennie’s continued to operate during the day, and the workers were given red shirts to wear to show they were not involved in the exercise.

“As long as we don’t interrupt the workers, they’re OK with us being here,” said Buffington.

Circumstances in this case were very different from most other disaster drills run in the area.

“This isn’t a fire or a tornado drill,” said Skowera, who is also Standard Fire Chief and county deputy coroner. “It’s a completely different situation with a shooter, so we have to slow down.”

Buffington was happy with the results of the day.

“Afterwards, I sat down with Jim (Goldasich), and we compared notes. It went better than we expected,” he said. “The Response Team asked us if they ever (needed our) help for something like this, would we? Yes.”

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