Hazmat unit conquers mock terrorist attack in training drill

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 1, 2004

Screams echoed through Bloch Park Wednesday morning as gas hissed into the confines of a packed room. Students had been setting up for a visit by Gov. Bob Riley seconds before the chaos broke out. One moment the chairs and tables sat perfectly arranged. The next they were toppled over as students fell victim to a terrorist attack.

Wednesday’s “attack,” though, was merely a drill for the Dallas County Hazardous Materials Unit. Members of the Center for National Response, which contracts with the Federal Department of Defense, organized Wednesday’s exercise. Alabama State Troopers, the Selma Police and Fire Departments, Dallas County Emergency Management Agency, Care Ambulance, the Alabama Department of Homeland Security, Vaughan Regional Medical Center and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management took part in the drill.

“What we have is mass hysteria,” said Terry Day, exercise planner with the Center for National Response, to students before the E-911 call was made. “Play it up. People are dying all around you. All hell just broke loose in here.”

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Students sported signs of trauma received from trying to leave the room as quickly as possible. Some lay dead on the floor as a machine spat out mist for effect. Others managed to reach the grass in front of the stadium before collapsing in pain, their cries unheard.

Tim Watson with the fire department was the first on the scene, and the first responder to die. Law enforcement members didn’t know the cause of the incident; all they knew came from the students’ frantic calls to E-911.

Upon arriving, Watson saw about 10 students sprawled on the lawn in front of the stadium. He approached to discover what happened and soon lay dead, a victim of the cyanide that had already escaped the small room inside the stadium.

The minutes continued to tick.

“With this particular agent, it don’t take but a whiff,” said Arch Nissel, with the Center for National Response. “You can’t see it, and once you smell it, you’re dead.”

A decontamination tent and triage area was set up thirty minutes after getting the call. After an hour the first two-man Hazmat unit was prepared to enter the “hot” zone where the students lay.

According to Day, it takes 10 to 15 minutes to set up a decontamination area. “With cyanide, after the first 10 minutes you’re either OK or dead,” Day said. “There’s not a whole lot in between.”

The agencies, though, didn’t know what chemical had been used. They prepared for the worst. As Battalion Chief Mike Stokes briefed the first team to enter the “hot” zone, EMA Director Brett Howard watched three students stumble toward the decontamination area – a large tent with showers. After decontamination, Care Ambulance employees ranked the victims according to their needs and laid them on one of four different triage mats. Emergency responders then loaded the students into the ambulance before taking them away.

As Care Ambulance employees tended to the wounded, two Hazmat members entered the danger zone in their tyvek suits. The suits are airtight and include oxygen tanks to ensure they remained unaffected by the attack. Once reaching the wounded, firefighter Kevin Brooks instructed students that could walk to proceed to decontamination. Only one couldn’t, which forced Brooks and firefighter Darnell Ross to put him on a stretcher and drag him back to the safe zone.

Howard noted that the Hazmat unit had equipment able to determine what agent was used. However, he called in the civil support team because it has a mobile laboratory and can ensure the Hazmat unit’s tests are accurate.

Bruce Freeman, with ADEM, noted that whatever chemical is used in an attack, the area must be decontaminated before it could be used again. “It might be a day or two,” Freeman said. “It might be months.”

Local agencies won’t have to worry about decontaminating Bloch Park since Wednesday’s incident was merely a drill. Instead, they packed their decontamination equipment away before the sun set, and students returned to their homes unscathed.

“This is a new organization,” Freeman said. “The whole point is to learn. That’s the whole point of exercises – to make some mistakes. Overall, they’re doing a great job.”