- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 23, 2002

RICHMOND Amid the screams and shrieking, a woman pleaded, "Please help me! Hurry!"

"I don't feel good," said another.

"What are we paying these people for? They're not even helping us," another woman said.

A few moments later, emergency personnel were on the scene in force, responding to a mock terrorist attack yesterday on a city bus. "Victims" of the conventional explosive and nerve gas attack were strewn about a grassy slope at the Virginia War Memorial just north of the James River.

Some performed dramatically. Two women ran out of the hot zone, contaminating police officers and firefighters. "Get back, get back," one firefighter shouted at them.

A male victim scurried about screaming and annoying firefighters and police officers. At one point he tried to get beyond the mounted patrol and into downtown Richmond. Police chased him down and cuffed him, unceremoniously plunking him flat on his face.

Some victims, their acting skills not quite up to par, relaxed in the sun and grinned in amusement.

The exercise was all business, however, for the array of local, state and federal officials who participated in it. The test, one of 120 drills being conducted throughout the country, was sponsored by the U.S. Justice Department.

Kevin Fannin, exercise manager for the Justice Department, said the simulated nerve gas was parathion, a nasty insecticide-like gas that can kill people. Parathion is highly toxic and could be fatal if inhaled, swallowed or absorbed through the skin in large amounts, officials said.

Emergency personnel had to figure out the nature of the attack for themselves.

"They had no idea. All they knew was that it was going to be an exercise," Mr. Fannin said.

They responded quickly and effectively. Firefighters in bulbous white and orange "moonsuits" escorted or carried victims to decontamination and treatment areas. Within an hour, 33 of the 36 victims had been removed from the "hot area" and awaited bus rides to four hospitals participating in the exercise.

"That's very good," Mr. Fannin said.

In a real emergency, anyone exposed to the gas would have been decontaminated with a water spray. But it was unusually cool, and officials opted to forgo that procedure. Still, victims stripped down to their underwear actually shorts or bathing suits and placed their contaminated clothes in plastic bags. They donned orange-colored ponchos to protect their dignity.

"This is as close to a real live situation as it could be," said Lt. Walter Johnson of the Richmond fire department.

Authorities even shooed away nosy reporters who got too close to the action.

Officials seemed uncertain whether police officers were authorized to use deadly force in a real chemical attack to protect themselves or the public from contamination.

Mr. Fannin seemed surprised by the question. "I wouldn't think so," he said after considering the issue. "I can't imagine they would ever use deadly force."

Police officials, after a few minutes of debate, decided deadly force could be used if officers first exhausted nonfatal methods such as a baton and pepper spray to control someone threatening to contaminate others.

Mr. Fannin said a performance report on the exercise will be ready in about 60 days.

Since September 11 the Justice Department has conducted exercises in 75 localities, including Virginia Beach, Norfolk and Arlington County.

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