A DRAMATIC armed siege when college students were held hostage by gunmen was played out in Hartlepool as part of a major emergency planning exercise.
Emergency services tested their responses in the operation which recreated a trail of carnage caused by a gang of armed robbers.
The scenes played out in Hartlepool and Stockton for Exercise Sandpiper had echoes of recent real terrorist attacks in Paris and Sydney.
But operation leaders from the Local Resilience Forum were quick to point out it was a coincidence and the exercise had been about a year in the planning.
Students from Hartlepool College of Further Education acted as hostages and were given realistic-looking injuries along with volunteers from Amputees in Action.
Ciaron Irvine, Cleveland Police’s Acting Assistant Chief Constable, said: “Working with the local authority and our emergency services colleagues we have been planning this operation for about a year so we could test ourselves in our abilities.
“It has been a big operation and has gone particularly well.
“Everything has worked correctly and we’ve all been able to work together which is great.”
The day began with a botched attempted robbery of a cash-in-transit van at Tesco, in Stockton.
In their escape the armed gang caused a fatal road accident.
They abandoned their getaway car at Wynyard Services on the A689 and torched it before hijacking another car.
Nothing more was heard of them until the car’s number plate was picked up by the Automatic Number Plate Recognition System which showed they were heading for Hartlepool.
They sped up to the former Jackson’s Landing retail park, on the marina, which doubled as Sandpiper College for the exercise.
The gang stormed the building, firing shots and taking some students hostage, while others fled screaming.
Armed police descended as negotiation practices were carried out.
It was one of the biggest emergency planning operations ever witnessed in Cleveland and involved around 150 people in total.
Cleveland Police, Hartlepool Borough Council, North East Ambulance Service (NEAS), Cleveland Fire Brigade, NHS England and the British Red Cross all took part.
Even officers involved were kept in the dark about the incidents to make their response as real as possible.
The public had been warned in advance not to be alarmed by all the dramatic activity.
Dave Stubbs, chief executive of Hartlepool Borough Council, said: “I think it’s vital we have exercises like this.
“We have seen recently, not in this country but abroad, emergencies and tragedies.
“This exercise is nothing to do with terrorism though, it is based around an armed robbery.
“It is really good for the ambulance service, the police and all the public services as they come together.
“The whole ethos of emergency planning is about different agencies being able to work with each other.
“God forbid it ever happens in real life but we are prepared for it.”