- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 17, 2002

STANDARD, W.Va. One of America's best hopes to handle a terrorist attack effectively lies in West Virginia coal country, down a dirt road and past a speck of a town cradled between huge shoulders of mountainside.

Retired Army Sgt. Mel Wick, program manager for the Center for National Response, leads a tour through a dingy mobile home, showing off the living room, kitchen and bedroom like a real estate agent who can't wait to retire.

He pulls a clock off a wall to reveal a small hook. He unlatches the hook and opens a panel leading to a concealed room.

"What we have here is a hidden lab," he said.

Inside the bedroom-size laboratory, a digital pH meter, a centrifuge, beakers and a chemical oven sit on countertops.

"This is what they use to make the sarin gas," he said, picking up a stalk of dried castor beans next to the oven. "You can grow it at home in a pot."

If terrorists set off a chemical or biological weapon such as sarin gas in the United States, the chances are good the emergency response team will have trained at Memorial Tunnel outside this town of 125 persons south of Charleston.

Last week, a 30-member team from the Marine Chemical-Biological Incident Response Force (CBIRF) based in Indian Head, Md., trained at the site. At the same time, other Marines from their unit were surveying the Washington Metro system.

U.S. Army units trained at Memorial Tunnel in recent months before they were sent to Afghanistan to search caves for evidence al Qaeda terrorists were making bombs, chemical or biological agents, or nuclear devices they intended to unleash on the United States.

Staging area for Metro

The Marine response team plans on-site training on the Washington Metro system at an undisclosed place and time in the near future. Although details remain secret, a similar training session was staged in December at the Smithsonian Metro station.

"I have briefed the D.C. Metro people a couple of times," Sgt. Wick said. They have expressed an interest in tunnel decontamination and plan to train their own emergency personnel at the Center for National Response soon but have not made an appointment, he said.

Metro officials would neither confirm nor deny their training plans.

"We're not very specific about what we do and who we do it with," said Polly Hanson, Metro's deputy police chief. "I'm not going to go into great detail."

However, the Marines say the Washington Metro and New York subways are among the top targets for which they are training.

"Right now, we are training with the D.C. Metro," said Lt. Paul Cabellon, CBIRF spokesman. He would not disclose details.

On two training days last week, the Marines practiced the kind of "high-angle rescues" that might be expected with bomb victims trapped under large buildings. They lowered a rescue basket down a steep hillside and from a second-floor platform, then practiced raising it with ropes.

In between such warnings as, "Take up the slack," or, "Careful," they talked about which commander said what to whom. While eating, they demonstrated how the chemical pouch that reacted with water to heat their meals ready to eat could be sealed in a plastic bag to make a water bomb.

Hollywood disaster scene

The interior of the half-mile-long tunnel looks like a mix of sets from Hollywood disaster movies.

One scenario assumes terrorists have jackknifed a semi-trailer inside a tunnel and released poisonous gas from a pressurized tank. Smashed and overturned cars are piled behind the truck, and lifelike crash dummies lie on the road. Their limbs are contorted, and blood streams from wounds.

Two mobile homes hide laboratories, one for poisonous chemicals and the other for viruses and bacteria.

Trainees are scored on their abilities to find the lab and to identify and isolate deadly chemicals or biological agents.

Another scenario uses a mock subway station, complete with turnstiles and advertising posters on the walls. A light-rail train salvaged from the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority rides on about 100 yards of track to help prepare for attacks such as the deadly sarin gas nerve agent released in 1995 in the Tokyo subway.

"This is the only subway station in West Virginia," Sgt. Wick says with a slight North Carolina accent.

Sgt. Wick is hoping to add a sound system soon. "It has the sounds of water hissing and people screaming," he said.

He walks past the "rubble area" and the dummy of a man with hands taped behind his back, feet dangling three feet over the ground and a noose strung from his neck to an overhead support. Nearby, cars smashed by concrete blocks of debris are supposed to test the ability of rescuers to pull trapped victims to safety.

One task of the Marines training in the rubble area last week was to rescue victims trapped in a subway tunnel after a bomb. With power saws buzzing, offensive fumes, crash-dummy victims and debris scattered throughout the area, "it gets pretty crazy," said Lt. Cabellon, a third-generation military man from Silver Spring.

Dummies chained to a wall, hanging from nooses or gagged and tied serve as hostages for trainees who want to practice eliminating "bad guys."

The goal, Sgt. Wick said, is "not to make it pretty but make it functional."

Responding to a near miss

The Center for National Response is operating on a $16 million, two-year Defense Department grant. About 1,500 military personnel, police and firefighters train at the site each year. When renovations are complete in March 2004, the center will provide training for up to 2,500 each year.

The Defense Department set up the facility in the abandoned turnpike tunnel two years ago after a Border Patrol agent stopped an Islamic extremist trying to cross the Canadian border with material for a large bomb in his trunk. An investigation revealed that the explosives were part of a plot to blow up Los Angeles International Airport.

Defense Department analysts realized that the United States increasingly was becoming a target for terrorists with conventional bombs, toxic chemicals, biological agents or nuclear weapons.

Each of those scenarios is represented at Memorial Tunnel in the obstacle course of smashed cars, bloody crash dummies, rubble from a collapsed building and other grisly scenes.

Since September 11, requests to use the tunnel have come at a faster rate.

Next month, a Pennsylvania National Guard unit plans to train for a chemical or biological attack. Last week, the Marines shared tunnel space with a local fire department training to extract victims trapped in cars. The center each month goes through 100 to 150 vehicles, which they buy from a local junkyard for $100 apiece. The Seattle Fire Department recently trained there.

The Center for National Response sometimes hires local residents to play the roles of victims. For chemical and biological training, these "victims" are stripped down to swimsuits underneath their clothing and sprayed with a decontaminating mixture.

The Marine unit, made up of some 370 members, was organized in 1996 to respond to new kinds of technological threats.

Many of the CBIRF Marines are in their early 20s and planning four-year stints in the military. In a recent assignment, they helped remove furniture from the Hart Senate Office Building while it was decontaminated for anthrax.

Municipal fire departments are top job destinations after they leave the Marines. The helmets of some former CBIRF members were found in the rubble of the World Trade Center.

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