A long, straining creak gave way with a final crack as a group of firefighter recruits tore the roof from a four-door sedan at the Public Safety Training Facility on Thursday.

“Look at that,” recruit Michael Curry said with a laugh. “We made a convertible!”

After two days of classroom learning, the recruits of Class 21 were eager to finally get their hands on the powerful hydraulic cutters and spreaders used to free people from crashed vehicles. Smiles spread across every face on the training pad as the vehicles — donated or purchased for nominal fees from junkyards across the county — were slowly and meticulously torn to pieces.

“Today’s definitely the most fun day of this class,” said recruit John McNemar. “In case we can’t open the door handle, we’re learning how to make a purchase point, stick the spreaders in there, and use that to pull the door right off the hinges.”

Much like when the recruits learned how to force their way into buildings a few weeks ago, the methods used to get into locked or mangled vehicles will depend on the circumstances and the patient, said Lt. Mike Webb, Class 21’s lead instructor.

Basically, the recruits are taught to use different tactics when faced with conscious patients pinned after crashes compared with, say, an unconscious person trapped in a more dangerous situation, such as a vehicle that is leaking gasoline or has caught fire.

“At that point, everything is on the table,” Webb said of high-priority situations. “For example, spinal protection, which is usually at the top of our list of priorities on scene, is null and void if the patient is dead.”

While the academy’s instructors frequently draw from their experiences and real-world calls to illustrate their lessons, last week’s fiery explosion and fatal crash on westbound Interstate 70 at northbound Interstate 270 unfolded while the recruits were sitting in class, Webb said.

As the class gathered around the radio to listen to units respond to the chaotic scene, Webb pulled up a live traffic camera feed on the Maryland Department of Transportation’s website.

“We basically watched it in the classroom while we listened to it unfold,” Webb said. “All of that played into what we were learning here in the classroom. ... That’s what we’re preparing them for. We run way more vehicle extrications than we do structure fires, and frankly these types of calls can be extremely dangerous.”

The crash happened after traffic on westbound I-70 was stopped for a congressional motorcade taking U.S. Senate Democrats to a retreat in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.

Jacob “Jake” Jackson, a 46-year-old Gaithersburg resident, was killed when his Nissan SUV was crushed between several dump trucks on westbound I-70 and a fire ignited, sparking at least one explosion on the busy highway.

“I think it put it in perspective really well for a lot of people in class that this isn’t just about fighting fires. It’s not just about running ambulance calls. It’s a real thing and sometimes people, unfortunately, die,” said recruit Zack McNeil, a former volunteer with a fire company in Pennsylvania.

McNemar, who also used to volunteer part time with a fire company in Howard County, agreed.

“It makes you think about how, yeah, we’re doing this as a training scenario, but in turn, we will be doing this in real life,” McNemar said. “So we have to take everything very seriously.”

Shouting to be heard over the sound of ripping, tearing metal and the high-pitched scream of electric saws, Lt. Matt Wilby walked his group of students through the delicate process of removing a windshield from an SUV during Class 21’s hands-on training Thursday.

When the first emergency tones came out over the radio at 9 a.m. Wednesday for the fatal crash, Wilby was riding with a rescue squad from United Steam Fire Engine Co. Based in downtown Frederick, Wilby’s crew was among the first at the scene.

“Obviously, we train as much as we can, but real-world stories and real-world experiences are absolutely invaluable,” Wilby said. A recruit from the previous academy’s class was completing a ride-along with the rescue squad when the call was dispatched, he said.

“The fact that [the recruits] were watching [the call] and that we can kind of bring it back here and collaborate about it is incredibly important ... because it’s something that can happen that we need to be prepared for mentally and physically,” Wilby said.

Follow Jeremy Arias on Twitter: @Jarias_Prime.

Jeremy Arias is the Frederick city and government reporter for The Frederick News-Post.

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