Anti-terrorism training takes over road tunnel

Abandoned site in West Virginia converted to new use

May 12, 2002|By Bob Dart | Bob Dart,COX NEWS SERVICE

STANDARD, W.Va. - A tunnel that goes nowhere in southern West Virginia is now leading toward a safer America.

Stretching half a mile through a wooded mountain in Kanawha County, the abandoned turnpike tunnel, Memorial Tunnel, has been converted into an underground training facility for anti-terrorism units, firefighters, military squads, police and other first responders to emergencies.

The interior of the remodeled tunnel is like a series of movie sets. A subway track, cars and station sit in one area; a highway crash scene is re-created elsewhere; three illicit labs have been set up in house trailers. A crumbled parking lot, an 18-wheeler, a slew of smashed cars and other real-life props are also used to set up training scenarios.

Once the stage is set, "it's total free play" for the trainees, said Gabriel Imperial, operations officer for this Center for National Response. "We stand back and let them go."

Federally financed

Open for about 17 months, the center is operated by Titan Systems Corp.'s Defense Programs Division and is funded by the National Guard Bureau through the Defense Department.

The federally financed training is free to federal, state and local first-response teams, which must pay for their transportation, food and lodging. The center is planning to set up double-wide house trailers to serve as dorms for the visiting units.

The center's 10 staff members dream up emergency situations that are tailored to fit the requirements of each visiting unit. The trainees have ranged from an elite Marine unit and SWAT teams to volunteer firefighters. Units have come from as far away as Seattle.

"We have no canned scenarios," said Imperial. The staff researches the function of each visiting "client" and comes up with a realistic tragedy that requires an immediate and specific response.

The scenarios can take minutes to solve or up 48 hours to contain. In the longer scenarios, units set up sleep schedules and rescue shifts.

"We want the feel of it to be realistic," said Imperial. "We want them to be challenged. We want them to feel stress."

The responses are evaluated by the center's experts and videotaped for further study by the visiting units.

"It really benefits us," said Bobby Shanklin, chief of the nearby East Bank Fire Department. On a recent evening, firefighters from several nearby communities combined in an "extraction" session - learning to rescue victims from wrecked cars.

"We pay $100 per car," said Don Fike, the facility manager, as he watched firefighters use hydraulic cutters to peel junked vehicles like tangerines. "For that, they deliver, pickup and take away. You can't beat that price."

Built in 1953

The two-lane tunnel is near this tiny mountain hamlet about midway between Charleston and Beckley, W.Va. Built in 1953 as part of the West Virginia Turnpike, the tunnel was used for traffic until 1987 when it was bypassed by Interstate 77/64. The bridges leading into and out of the tunnel were removed but one entrance can be reached by a narrow, winding road.

From 1990 to 1997, the tunnel was used for testing fire ventilation by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. For three years after that program was completed, the facility was used for storage by the West Virginia Turnpike.

In May 2000, construction began to convert the facility into the Center for National Response, an exercise training facility for counterterrorism and first responders to emergencies such as those that would be created by weapons of mass destruction. The first exercise was conducted in December 2000.

"'We were operational before 9/11," said Imperial. However, the type of training provided by the center has certainly gained more attention since the terrorists slammed hijacked jetliners into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon. The subsequent anthrax attacks also highlighted the hazardous- materials training available at the site.

The tunnel can be sealed off into "pitch-black darkness" for some exercises, said Imperial. For others, the facility is filled with smoke.

In the labs

Agents can enter and explore three illicit chemical, biological or drug labs hidden inside mobile homes.

In the least sophisticated, dubbed the "Bubba Lab," batches of illegal drugs might be concocted.

The second is an advanced lab that might have been set up by a disgruntled scientist.

The third, a professional lab, is sophisticated enough to be entered through a detox shower and full of equipment of the sort that might be used in making weapons of mass destruction. Although the actual deadly chemicals are not used, the labs are stocked with differing precursor chemicals that the investigating agents would have to recognize and to know the deadly potential.

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