“My baby! Where’s my baby!” a mother screamed as she frantically searched for her child amongst the chaos that was unfolding before me. Her cries became white noise, joining with the other frightened yells of other parents.
“Have you seen Timmy?” one wide-eyed mother grabbed me by the shoulders, shaking me in panic. “Have you seen my boy?”
What had begun as a sunny autumn day had devolved into madness as more and more parents flooded the fairgrounds in a state of panic.
I side-stepped one father who came barreling into the horse ring where I was standing in front of the fairgrounds grandstands, his jacked up F-150 sliding to a stop just inches from where I had been standing. Somebody was going to get hurt with all the panic going on. So, with all the breath I could summon – and I do have some big lungs – I yelled at the top of my lungs, my scream freezing everyone within ear shot. “IT’S JUST A DRILL!
“It’s a what?” the panicked father in the F-150 asked as he stepped down from his truck.
“It’s a drill,” I repeated calmly. “This has all just been a drill.”
What had been a panicked swarm of worried parents that had flooded the Warren County Fairgrounds in an instant turned into an angry mob, wanting to know whose idea it was and where they could buy some rope.
Okay, perhaps I should start from the beginning of that perfectly beautiful September morning. I got up to do my normal Friday fair coverage for kid’s day at the annual exposition. That’s the day they have the school Olympics and have reduced rides for students at the fair. However, on this day there was something else that caught my interest. The emergency services had decided they would hold a disaster drill there and let the kids who wanted to play the part of injured victims. I think you can see where this is going.
Well, as part of the drill, there were realistic radio calls that went out over scanners across the county. In Warren County, everyone has a police scanner. I think there’s an ordinance that requires it there. I personally listened to one 24/7 for 28 years while working the paper.
Anyway, it seems someone, and to this day no one knows who, forgot to announce that it was all a drill. Instead, they were giving out patient injury information and painting a picture of horrific disaster. Oh, did I mention that the fictitious disaster was that the Ferris Wheel had collapsed at the fair on kid’s day?
“Who would come up with something like that?” I can hear you say as you scratch your head in disbelief. “I mean, come on man. How stupid can you be?”
I’m just the messenger here, a witness to Warren County’s own War of the Worlds drama, except in this case it wasn’t H.G. Wells but some really dramatic dispatcher working everyone into a frenzy.
As you can imagine, word spread like wildfire across the county bringing every momma, daddy, aunt, uncle and step-cousin running to the fairgrounds. And, what did they find when they arrived – kids strewn everywhere on stretchers. I can only imagine the horror these folks felt as they arrived on the cataclysmic scene.
In hindsight, the only danger that day was someone getting run over by a panicked parent. As you may have guessed, that day changed forever how drills are held. Now, anytime there’s a drill they repeat “this is just a drill” after every transmission on the off-chance someone is joining in the middle of the event. They also make sure local media lets folks know it’s coming up ahead of time so there’s no repeat of the fair incident. Oh, and they haven’t had a drill at the fair since.
That’s been many years ago and still, to this day, no one has ever stepped up to take responsibility for that lapse in judgement. But that’s the way it goes: people line up to take credit but get scarce when it’s time to lay the blame.