Preparing for terrorism Exercise: Rescue workers conduct an anti-terrorist drill to determine how they would deal with such a situation.

October 29, 1998|By Amy Oakes | Amy Oakes,SUN STAFF

Imagine this: A terrorist organization, waging war on the Western world, sets off a chemical bomb in an East Baltimore apartment complex, causing several fatalities and dozens of injuries.

It could happen. And yesterday, city rescue workers conducted their first full-scale anti-terrorist exercise to show that should Baltimore ever become a victim of terrorism, the city would be ready.

Under the watchful eyes of local, state and federal observers, the city's police and fire departments, hazardous materials team and other emergency personnel responded to a chemical explosion in a building at the vacant Strathdale Manor Apartments in the 5500 block of Sarril Road as if it were a real crisis.

As part of the U.S. Army Soldier and Biological Command's (USASBC) domestic preparedness training to respond to nuclear, biological and chemical terrorism, emergency personnel spent most of the morning treating mock victims and keeping the faux bomb's toxic nerve agent, sarin, from spreading through the city.

"This is supposed to be a training exercise, not an evaluating method," said Suzanne Fournier, chief of public affairs for the USASBC at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

Baltimore was one of 120 cities designated for domestic terrorism training under the Domestic Preparedness initiative, which was created in September 1996 in the wake of the World Trade Center and Oklahoma City bombings. Emergency personnel in 40 cities have received training, culminating in a field exercise such as yesterday's.

Firefighter John Lamantia, who was part of the first response crew, said he knew the call was a drill, but was shocked to see about 60 panicked people -- portrayed by students from Dunbar High School -- running at him.

"Physically, it was realistic because we had to pull bodies out," Lamantia said. "Mentally, we knew there wasn't any danger."

Rich McKoy, director of the city's emergency management, said that overall, the trial run was a success in showing how the departments would coordinate their responses. "The focus of this is to learn," McKoy said. "Exercise is important if you want to get it right."

McKoy said that although the city has dealt with hazardous material situations, incidents in 1995 such as the Oklahoma City bombing and the Tokyo subway attack -- when a Japanese cult released sarin gas into a subway system, killing 12 people -- have created a need to be prepared for terrorism at home. "Those type of situations showed the city and the mayor the importance of this kind of training," he said.

Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres, a Fire Department spokesman, said local units took part in the exercise. If the situation were real, Torres said, state and federal officials would be used.

John Jones, a private contractor who coordinated the exercise, said the training threw a lot of situations at the emergency personnel.

Not only were they handling the chaos at the apartment complex -- dealing with everything from a woman looking for her baby to a man who left his insulin inside -- but monitors were stationed at local hospitals, in a traffic jam, and at the fire dispatch center to see how they managed.

Cartrina Lawrence, a Dunbar 11th-grader who played the part of a fatality of the explosion, said the experience dissuaded her from emergency response work.

"It's too dramatic," Cartrina said as she lay on the curb covered in a white blanket. "Everything doesn't go according to plan."

Pub Date: 10/29/98

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