ATWATER -- Throughout the day Sunday, the unnatural and unnerving sounds of crunching metal could be heard on an Atwater field as 30 firefighters learned the best way to free auto accident victims from mangled wrecks -- without the pressure of a real rescue.
A 1980s Ford Thunderbird, Acura Integra, and Ford and Chrysler minivans gave their all so the firefighters would be better equipped to pull someone trapped inside a twisted hulk and get them to a trauma center within an hour of the wreck.
Much of the 16-hour training involved using the Hurst Jaws of Life auto extrication tool, which peels back or slices through seemingly impenetrable sheet metal like a tuna fish can or airbags that are capable of lifting 21 tons almost a foot in the air to free someone trapped underneath a car or truck.
Capt. Gabriel Santos, Merced County Fire Department training officer, said eight hours of classroom training and eight hours in a field on Broadway next to Julio's Auto Wrecking, which donated the cars, exposed firefighters to gear they may have never used before.
Juan Salazar, a firefighter from Delhi, said he learned a great deal from the Saturday and Sunday sessions. "It's (training) really good and shows the capabilities of the equipment we have."
"It's been a great day," Santos said. "There's a lot we don't have control over but knowing our equipment and its capabilities is critical. "We pile them up (wrecked cars) and give them back at the end of the day."
Students from the Merced College Fire Academy, Atwater, Merced and Los Banos city fire departments, Merced and Mariposa counties fire departments participated. Cal Fire engineers Chris Benard, Brian Nation and Mark Pimentel helped Santos teach the class along with paid call firefighter Donald Thrasher.
Jaime Bond, of Mariposa, a seasonal firefighter from Cal Fire and a Mariposa County volunteer, has never been at an auto accident where extrication was needed but thought it was nice to get hands-on training with unfamiliar equipment, see how it all works together and find out how other people do certain things.
Nation demonstrated several different metal cutters and hydraulic rams used to spread sheet metal. He said firefighters learned how to maneuver metal away from patients trapped in vehicles. Doors, dashes and steering wheels typically are the major obstacles to freeing trapped victims.