- The Washington Times - Monday, May 22, 2000

Emergency planners learned yesterday how much they wouldn't know at least in time to do much good if a small nuclear bomb exploded in the District of Columbia.

They wouldn't know how many people would die, how many rescue workers they could count on rousing out of their homes to help or how much time they would have to evacuate people living at or near ground zero.

The problem, according to organizers of yesterday's super-secret disaster drill involving federal and local authorities, is it's impossible to conduct a true-to-life rescue mission without endangering the public.

"You've got to strike some reasonable balance between real life and a drill like this one," said Philip Clark, a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

"You've got to ask if it's worth risking someone's life for a drill. Our goal with these drills is to find some compromise that would enable us to learn all the techniques we need if a terrorist act would occur here while at the same time not putting our police officers and residents at risk," Mr. Clark added.

The drill was held at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Southeast.

The mock explosion occurred at 12:06 p.m. when a van standing near 200 people watching a softball game burst into flames. Two minutes later, five persons wearing red-stained T-shirts lay on the ground playing dead, along with 11 victims suffering from radiation poisoning.

Two District police officers and a police canine unit who were the first to arrive had to wait for hazardous material crews to decontaminate the "victims."

The supposed terrorists who placed the bomb inside the van were not anti-American extremists, but a group of Americans with a political grudge.

"We are prepared for an attack, but we need to get better," said Peter LaPorte, director of the D.C. Emergency Management Agency, which coordinated the exercise.

The drill lasted most of the afternoon with police and firefighters blocking entry to the medical facility where the mock explosion had taken place just after midday.

Meanwhile, a team of rescue workers put on rubber jumpsuits to find and try to save the 16 persons who lay on the ground near the mangled van.

Most of the crews responding to the scene knew the incident was a drill. They didn't rush, like they typically do with sirens and lights, and stopped at every stoplight and stop sign on the way to the scene so they wouldn't injure any bystanders.

"You've got to preserve life," said city police Officer David K. Parrish Sr., who took on the role of police spokesman for the drill.

"If this was reality and we were attacked, they would have gotten here a lot faster than they did today."

Yesterday's drill, called National Capital Region 2000, was one of several domestic counterterrorism response drills being held across the country this month.

About 30 city and federal agencies and an estimated 350 officials participated in the exercise, which was conducted by the FBI, FEMA and the Department of Energy.

Officials in Denver and in Portsmouth, N.H., are scheduled to conduct similar exercises, called "Topoff," which are congressionally mandated, also sometime this month.

Organizers said yesterday the efforts in all three cities make up the nation's largest domestic terrorism exercise in history.

The goal of the exercises is to assess the nation's crisis and consequence management capacity in incidents that involve weapons of mass destruction such as chemical or biological attacks.

The exercise scenarios will help top-level federal, state and local personnel practice different courses of action, maintain awareness and assemble appropriate resources.

By the end of the exercise yesterday, officials with different agencies said they were pleased with the results.

"We're satisfied with the way things went," Mr. LaPorte said. "Things went very smoothly. But there are always new lessons to be learned."

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