Locals train to handle terrorist attack

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 16, 2004

ELIZABETH CITY – Eastern North Carolina is better trained to handle a terrorist attack after about 150 emergency personnel gathered here recently at Elizabeth City State University for a tabletop exercise.

With funding provided by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, emergency personnel from nine counties were invited to develop a regional Incident Response Team to react to weapons of mass destruction or other catastrophic incidents and to promote inter-county cooperation. Those involved in the training included county leaders, law enforcement agencies, emergency management, rescue squads, health departments, fire departments, public works departments, the media, school systems, State and Federal Bureaus of Investigation, Highway Patrol, Coast Guard and National Guard, area hospitals, American Red Cross, Salvation Army and others.

Precision Planning and Simulations, Inc., and Retired Coast Guard Captain Don Jensen of Jensen and Associates of Elizabeth City led the exercise. Captain Jenson is a consultant on the local and national level.

In the hypothetical scenario, law enforcement received information that a terrorist cell had set up a chemical laboratory in the area, but the information was not shared with other agencies. About a month later, an officer noticed a truck moving in a suspicious way and attempted to stop it. The driver, a cell member who was moving a chemical bomb to a military base in Virginia, panicked and exploded the bomb in front of a school, causing catastrophic damage.

First officers at the school secured the scene, evacuated the area, set up triage and a command post, called emergency medical services and ambulances, determined known injuries, set up a no fly zone over the area and called surrounding counties, the SBI and FBI for assistance. Officers entered the school building and immediately found 20 people dead, 24 in critical condition, 40 with minor injuries and 16 walking wounded. Responders were instructed not to move anyone who was not breathing.

From that point in the hypothetical scenario, conditions worsened. It was discovered that the sophisticated bomb was set to release mustard gas after the major explosion and people in the entire area were contaminated. First responders on the scene and children taken to the local hospital were contaminated, which tainted the entire hospital through air ducts. Then workers discovered that the water supply was contaminated and the governor declared a state of emergency.

As emergency workers from the area rushed to the scene, other work began. Morgues had to be set up; students had to be moved to a central location and parents had to be informed, but could not get their children; buildings from which cries for help came had to be examined for safety; and the public began to arrive at the hospital with symptoms of chemical exposure from the mustard gas.

Workers wondered if hospitals in other areas could accept patients who were contaminated with mustard gas and if the State of Virginia would be willing to expend resources in another state.

The FBI took over and a communication center was established so all data was reported to and came from one source to prevent conflicting information. The communication center had to determine how much information could be given the public without causing a panic.

Participants in the exercise discovered that an incident involving weapons of mass destruction cause problems and concerns from the most basic to the most extreme level. Each problem must be handled by the appropriate agency or results are even more disastrous. The exercise ended with a session that evaluated and critiqued the training.

Special Agent David C. Martinez of Charlotte represented the FBI in the training. Local emergency workers who participated in the training included Rickey Freeman, Emergency Management Coordinator for Bertie County; William Hoggard, who serves on Bertie’s Local Emergency Planning Committee and represents Bertie Memorial Hospital; and David Humphrey of Kelford, Area I Coordinator for the NC Division of Emergency Management.