Tunnel closes for terror drill

Simulation: Police and firefighters respond to imaginary attacks on the structure that carries I-95 under Baltimore Harbor.

October 04, 2004|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Had it been real, the loss of two police officers in a fire in the Fort McHenry Tunnel would have been tragic. Instead, it was a learning experience.

The two simulated smoke inhalation "deaths" came as emergency crews practiced their response to an imaginary terrorist attack on the tunnel early yesterday.

The Maryland Transportation Authority Police briefly closed the tunnel in both directions yesterday to conduct the joint exercise with the Baltimore Fire Department.

Transportation Authority Police Chief Gary W. McLhinney said that although authorities had staged fire drills at the tunnel before, yesterday's was the first to simulate a terrorist incident. He said he was pleased with the results of the 70-minute drill.

McLhinney said the exercise showed successes and weaknesses in the emergency crews' response.

"We really have to do a better job on interoperability of communications," he said. "Our radio doesn't communicate with fire radio."

On the other hand, McLhinney said, he was pleased with the police agency's ability to divert traffic from Interstate 95 to Interstate 895 on short notice.

"Our detour patterns worked very well," he said.

Transportation authority officials had announced that they would close the southbound lanes of the tunnel between 5 a.m. and noon yesterday, but the day of the drill brought some unexpected wrinkles.

Two southbound lanes remained open to traffic almost up until the drill began at 7 a.m., with smoke machines simulating a vehicle fire in the tunnel under Baltimore Harbor.

Shortly after that, contrary to their assurance last week that northbound traffic wouldn't be affected, officials closed those lanes for several minutes as well. Meanwhile, emergency response teams followed a scenario that started as a vehicle fire and escalated into an explosion and discovery of a suspicious package.

McLhinney said the northbound lanes were closed to surprise the emergency crews.

Smoke poured out of the tunnel for about a half-hour before being vented off by the tunnel's large fans.

Transportation Authority Police spokeswoman Catherine Leahan said police and firefighters were working from a script written by the Maryland Emergency Management Agency but that they had no notification of what exactly would happen. She said that with a few exceptions, such as her and the chief's presence at the scene, staffing was the same as it normally would be on a Sunday morning.

Onlookers could see officials set up a command post near the tunnel after the first report of a vehicle fire, then move it farther away after the script called for an "explosion."

Leahan said before the drill that she expected it to last until almost 11:30 a.m., but at 8:08 a.m. a radio alert called off the exercise.

McLhinney said he also was surprised when planners ended the drill early. "They felt they had accomplished what they wanted to accomplish," he said.

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