Drill prepares firefighters, Marines for the worst

Baltimore subway exercise simulates bioterror attack

November 17, 2003|By Matt Whittaker | Matt Whittaker,SUN STAFF

Smoke filled the Baltimore Metro subway's Johns Hopkins station early yesterday as Marines, area firefighters and groaning, screaming "victims" staged a dress rehearsal for disaster - a bioterror attack.

Playing roles designated by cards that hung from their necks, the "victims" were volunteers acting out the horrible symptoms of the suffering that a biological weapon could bring. The smoke was produced by machines.

But Baltimore City Fire Department Capt. David Coogan, one of its planners, said that the training exercise under the 600 block of N. Broadway, near Johns Hopkins Hospital, was "very realistic."

The drill - including fire departments from the city and surrounding counties, and the Marine Corps' Chemical and Biological Incident Response Force - simulated an industrial pesticide's release into the subway by aerosol explosive devices at the peak traffic time of 8 a.m. on a Monday.

The most unrealistic aspect was the response times of the units, Coogan said.

For example, the CBIRF team, based in Indian Head, would normally take about an hour and a half to arrive. For the exercise, they were on the scene in about 25 minutes.

But after that, Coogan said, the simulation closely modeled what would happen in real life.

The scenario specified an explosion on the platform level set off by a fictitious "Marylanders for Animal Rights and Ethical Treatment" angry with the hospital for supposed bioweapons testing on animals.

The explosion would have injured and killed people while also spreading industrial pesticide in the form of white powder, according to the scenario description. In a real situation, the cloud produced by the pesticide would be heavier than the smoke used, so it would stay lower to the ground, but still contaminate the platform, mezzanine and concourse levels of the subway, with decreasing levels of injury on the way up.

Victims and emergency responders acted accordingly, with the latter donning yellow or green hazardous materials "bubble suits" as they took turns bringing out the injured on flexible plastic stretchers.

Coogan said the goal was to have everyone out within an hour and then take them through a simulated decontamination process, which in real life would involve being hosed off en masse. Victims would then be triaged and sent to hospitals.

Portions of Broadway, Central Avenue and Orleans Street were closed to traffic earlier Saturday as firetrucks and command tents were put into place for the exercise. The "attack" started about 1:45 a.m., after subway operating hours and had to conclude before 5 a.m. when it normally reopens for business.

"If this had been a real-life incident, we would have shut the system down," said city fire spokesman Michael Maybin.

The drill had been set for Sept. 27 and 28, but was postponed because of a real emergency - Tropical Storm Isabel.

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