HARARE, Zimbabwe – Around the world, the news went out: Plane accident in Zimbabwe, black smoke on runway, ambulances screaming in.
Except the disaster never happened.
Harare airport authorities tricked the public and the world’s media into believing a security drill Thursday was a crash to make the drill and the emergency response seem more real.
It’s a practice that’s been used elsewhere, but is seen as especially risky in a world where panic is only a few tweets or clicks away.
“Emergency drills are all well and good as part of regular safety procedures and operational awareness in the event of the real thing, but there is a danger of a ‘cry wolf’ syndrome if emergency drills are repeatedly confused with ‘real-life’ events,” said Neil MacKinnon, global macro strategist at VTB Capital.
Financial markets appeared unperturbed by Thursday’s incident in economically and politically isolated Zimbabwe. But the lie disrupted hospital staff in the country’s capital, confused airport passengers, and provoked worries about its impact on the struggling air industry.
It started around midday, when Zimbabwean aviation officials told news organizations that a Boeing 767 arriving from London was involved in an accident at Harare’s airport.
Soldiers, paramilitary police and security agents sealed off approaches to the airport and guarded the perimeter. Military helicopters hovered aloft as smoke rose from one runway. Ambulances rushed in.
At Harare’s Parirenyatwa hospital, extra doctors and nurses were rushed in and told to expect casualties from the airport. The atmosphere at the hospital was tense with staff evidently believing it was a genuine emergency.
All-news TV networks and websites in several countries flashed the reports of an accident, and the alerts were passed along dozens of times via Twitter.
Several hours later, David Chawota, head of the Zimbabwe Civil Aviation Authority, told journalists that the drill’s scenario — involving a nonexistent Boeing 767 airliner arriving from London — was designed to simulate a hijacking in which nine people had been killed and 30 were injured.
“Telling the media was part of the exercise. We wanted to see how the media would react,” he said. “In the event, the drill was a success because all our systems worked perfectly. Police, security and hospital staff reacted swiftly” — along with the media.
Emergency hospital facilities in Zimbabwe have suffered acute shortages of equipment and drugs in the nation’s economic meltdown. Emergency services are ill-equipped to handle bus crashes and highway accidents.
It was not the first time civil aviation authorities have intentionally issued fake statements to the public, only to retract them after the exercise ended.
In 2002, a false report of an airplane crash at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport sent journalists rushing to the scene only to discover it was a practice drill. And in 2006, Kenyan officials again told journalists that a passenger plane had crashed near a Nairobi airport with 80 people on board — but when reporters arrived, they found that nothing had happened. Nairobi saw similar cases in 2001 and 1999.
Media watchdogs warned against such manipulation.
Gilles Lordet, editor-in-chief at Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, called the incident “totally absurd” and said the media should have been warned in advance.
“You must think about the human consequences, but also those for the media,” he said. “This further discredits journalists, and encourages those who say journalists only flap their gums.”
He said that there is more of a risk in today’s interconnected world that rumors and misinformation could spread farther and faster than in the past.
News that it was all just a drill traveled swiftly too, however, and produced far more action on Twitter and elsewhere online than the original false report.
Aviation analysts also say the practice, which has also been used in Europe, has troubling implications for an industry still struggling to recover after a deep downturn caused by the global economic crisis and the volcanic ash cloud that blocked European air traffic earlier this year.
“Safety-related stories like this do get into the press very, very quickly, and people will be concerned that there has been a plane crash that hadn’t really occurred,” said Richard Maslen of Airliner World, a British aviation industry publication.
“This shouldn’t happen if the drill is managed and organized properly and information is provided so that the public understands what’s happening.”
The spokesman for the umbrella group for world airline pilots said he was puzzled by the need to mislead the public.
“It’s kind of surprising, why anyone would do that. It’s difficult to see what kind of benefit would that bring to a drill,” said Gideon Ewers, from the 105,000-member International Federation of Airline Pilots Associations.
Experts agree that while emergency procedures need to be practiced regularly to make sure that all elements of the system work together, it’s important not to make them too real. A number of such exercises have gone badly wrong recently, including some that have placed the traveling public at risk.
In January, airport police in Slovakia slipped 3.4 ounces (96 grams) of plastic explosive into the check-in luggage of an Irishman returning home after Christmas holidays.
The move was supposed to be part of a training test for a bomb-sniffing dog, but an the ensuing mix-up, the bags were loaded onto the plane and allowed to fly across Europe to the passenger’s destination.
Several years ago, French police discontinued the technique of using unsuspecting travelers’ luggage in exercises after a bag containing explosives disappeared on a conveyor belt ferrying luggage to dozens of international flights. The explosives were never recovered.
“It’s not just Zimbabwe’s goof,” said William Voss of the Flight Safety Foundation based in Alexandria, Virginia. He cited examples in the United States where security exercises had caused alarm among people convinced that a real attack was taking place.
“The planning of emergency preparedness drills is something that needs to be thought out carefully, because they can easily go wrong,” he said.
“There’s a very fine line between simulating emergencies and actually creating them,” Voss said.