The ripple effects of a Japanese cult's sarin gas attack on Tokyo subway riders in 1995 reached Baltimore this week.
After that attack, which left 12 dead and more than 5,500 sickened, the United States began fretting about the possibility that someone with a vial of sarin, mustard gas or anthrax could try a copycat attack in this country. The question was asked repeatedly, in congressional hearings, in military strategy rooms and in local police precincts and fire halls: Are we prepared?
The answer -- a resounding no -- led to the creation last year of the Domestic Preparedness program, a $50 million-a-year effort to train rescue workers in the nation's 120 largest cities by 2002. Baltimore is the 16th city to receive the training, which is being run by the Army's Chemical and Biological Defense Command at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Edgewood.
Dozens of police, firefighters, paramedics and hospital workers from the city and nearby counties spent this week attending classes and mock disaster exercises, learning how to respond to such chilling scenarios as a cloud of poisonous gas floating above Bel Air.
The timing was apt. The recent standoff with Iraq over its alleged chemical weapons stash has created "heightened awareness" of the threat of biological and chemical attack, said Robert Cumberland, vice president of Westminster Volunteer Fire Department in Carroll County, who attended classes Tuesday.
"The potential for biological and chemical attacks is greater now in our own country than it ever was," said Cumberland, a 34-year firefighter. "With militias and militant groups out there, you never know when somebody might get perturbed and try something."
There's a new word for it: bio-terrorism.
Scientists also discussed such threats in Atlanta this week at the International Conference on Emerging Infectious Diseases, where a Johns Hopkins University researcher warned that the United States should be preparing for biological attack as aggressively as it did for nuclear attack.
Dr. D. A. Henderson, the researcher, said the country should be stockpiling vaccines that could counter the effects of such attacks.
Jim Warrington, director of Aberdeen's Domestic Preparedness program, said the World Trade Center and Oklahoma City bombings in 1993 and 1995, respectively, and Atlanta's 1996 Summer Olympics bomb blast have shown cities the devastation of domestic terrorism. But growing fears of biological and chemical terrorism prompted calls for the federal training program.
"[The training] has filled a void," Warrington said. "I think we are making a difference across the country, because this is a huge problem that the nation now faces."
The emergency workers trained in Baltimore this week will share their training with their colleagues this summer. Those who attended the session said they have felt in recent years an uneasy sense of being ill-prepared for the evils of nerve gas and so-called blistering agents, which even in small doses can inflict horrific injuries.
"When we fight wars in the Middle East, we feel protected. But now you realize that all it takes is one individual carrying a small canister of poison to wipe out a thousand people," said Assistant Baltimore City Fire Chief Ray Lehr, during a break in his classes.
Lehr said the training will help longtime fire and rescue workers respond differently to chemical or biological situations than, say, to a car wreck. Instead of instinctively rushing to aid victims, rescuers must make sure no deadly gas lingers and makes them the next victims. "We're used to just rushing in and not thinking about ourselves," Lehr said.
In one exercise this week, Darius Whitaker fell to the floor, where his body shook while paramedics watched and took notes.
Whitaker was a "victim" in a mock disaster in which two men dressed as clowns on a crowded subway car popped balloons filled with nerve gas. Trainees were taught to don protective suits and respirators before aiding the victims. They were also taught how to decontaminate themselves afterward.
Trainer Brian Toomey warned that the problem cities face is that toxic chemical agents can be mixed "by second-year chemistry students." He said many recipes for sarin and other agents can be found on the Internet.
Officials in other cities say they can't afford the extra equipment the Army suggests using in chemical or biological disasters. But Lehr said Baltimore's hazardous materials, or Haz-Mat, squads have much of the protective gear they would need for a chemical or biological attack.
Suzanne M. Fournier, spokeswoman for the Chemical and Biological Defense Command at Aberdeen, said that the program is expensive and that buying protective suits and other equipment would bankrupt it. But the program leaves behind text books and training videos to help cities continue to train their people long after the Army has moved onto the next town.
Fournier said that as the "traveling road show" continues, the level of concern grows. The unresolved situation with Iraq has compounded cities' fears. She said, "There's a heightened awareness of the chemical/biological threat."
Pub Date: 3/13/98