It was a coincidence that might have been a lifesaver.

On Dec. 1, Parkside Elementary School was evacuated at the beginning of the school day because of a gas leak. It only took one minute for 700 schoolchildren to flee the school.Principal Steven Smith credits the smooth evacuation to a mock disaster drill that the Parkside PTA sponsored only a week before the emergency. It was Parkside's first mock disaster drill, but it won't be its last.

In fact, Smith was so impressed in how the drill prepared his students for the real emergency that he is urging other schools to hold their own mock disaster drills.

He said he's decided that the fire and other emergency drills aren't sufficient preparation for the real thing.

The principal said they've become too routine - "almost like sharpening a pencil."

Often a secretary or another member of the school staff will stay inside to catch up on work during a fire drill. Children may be more interested in getting out of class for a few minutes than paying attention to drill instructions.

"You get all levels of concern during a fire drill," the principal said. "The message when you go through the basic drills is that everybody knows what to do, that you're prepared. But I honestly don't think they prepare a school for a real emergency."

During the mock disaster, the PTA arranged for "victims" with fake blood and bandages, ambulances, stretchers and medical personnel. An obstacle was set up so some students had to leave the school through windows. The system was worked out so every child in the school could be out of the school and accounted for in a matter of seconds.

Smith thinks the "visual aids" and extent of the drill impressed upon the students the importance of learning what to do.

And although a few may have originally objected to the drill because it interfered with the regular school day, all seem supportive now, he said.