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San Francisco disaster drill fails as helicopter foiled by fog, malfunctions

Mary Ellen Carroll, Executive Director of the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management, takes a selfie with other city employees after a failed emergency exercise drill on the morning of Monday, Sept. 12 at Crocker Amazon Park in San Francisco, Calif. The drill, which was meant to consist of a U.S. Marine Corps helicopter landing in the northwestern corner of Crocker Amazon Playground and dropping off humanitarian aid packages failed because there was too much fog for the helicopter to safely fly. | Courtesy Mary Ellen Carroll/SFDEM

An emergency drill meant to test San Francisco’s readiness for earthquakes and other disasters ended in failure Monday.

A U.S. Marine Corps helicopter was scheduled to land at Crocker Amazon Playground, carrying communications equipment and an urban rescue team, but couldn’t land due to foggy conditions at first. Later, a mechanical issue meant the helicopter had to return to base. 

This happened as a team from San Francisco’s Department of Emergency Management (SFDEM) waited to greet the helicopter. 

Before the landing, the department’s boss Mary Ellen Carroll tweeted that the drill was part of the city’s Fleet Week emergency prep program.

Several hours later, Carroll tweeted “still waiting,” along with a selfie featuring other people with their hands held out as if to say, “Where is it?” 

If an earthquake or other disaster were to hit San Francisco, the most difficult place to land a helicopter would be in the foggy southeast of the city, explained SFDEM Information Officer Nubia Mendoza.

But Adrienne Bechelli, deputy director for emergency services, said that San Franciscans need not worry that they would be without help or support if that’s indeed where a disaster hits.

“What I would say to people who worry that one aircraft had a technical glitch today is that there are a lot more aircraft out there,” said Bechelli. “We were working with one for a drill and drilling is different than real world emergencies.”

She also said there are “many landing zones throughout the city” and if it were an actual emergency, Marines would make additional aircrafts available.

“The helicopter landing itself was only one component of the drill we did today. This was our fourth exercise we did in this series…and was supposed to be the finale,” said Bechelli. 

The exercise was mainly about understanding what it takes to land a helicopter in San Francisco, Bechelli said. 

Which, from the looks of it, is easier said than done.

Joe Burn can be reached at