TOPOFF4: An Experience in Terrorism


 
 

Jose Paul Corona | | Thursday, October 18, 2007


PORTLAND, Ore. -- Skyview High School students in bathing suits braved the elements for their country Tuesday.

They voluntarily stood outdoors in rainy, 50-degree weather as part of TOPOFF4, the largest anti-terrorism exercise in U.S. history.

The exercise, which continues throughout the week in locations around the country, depicts the explosions of radiological dirty bombs in Guam, Phoenix and Portland, and the aftermath.

The drill scenario: A bomb on a bus went off at 9:06 a.m. at the east end of Portland s Steel Bridge. The explosion heavily damaged the Holladay Park and Davis buildings at Legacy Emanuel Hospital in Portland. Twelve people were killed and 15 were injured in the blast, a hospital press release said. Radiation was widespread.

An Uzbek Islamic Society claimed responsibility for the blast and said two more would follow, said a report on a news Web site set up for the drill.

The Department of Homeland Security organized the drill, involving more than 15,000 people who work for federal, state and local agencies.

At the federal level besides Homeland Security, the Department of Defense will perform concurrent exercises related to global terrorist threats. The Department of Health and Human Services will practice dealing with health problems caused by a radiological emergency.

Homeland Security officials along with numerous local public safety agencies, some from Clark County, took part in the local scenario. The area surrounding Portland International Raceway stood in for the Steel Bridge.

The exercise is costing millions of dollars. Clark County received a federal grant of $100,000 for its part in the drill, and other local agencies that participated will be reimbursed for any cost incurred.

News crews gathered at the raceway Tuesday morning and awaited the explosion. Once the bomb went off, things went as might be expected during an actual terrorist attack: slowly.

Victims with simulated wounds were led to the area around the bus several minutes after the blast. They were then scattered around the area and told to lie down on the damp grass and among damaged cars. Shortly after they were in place it began to rain.

Several minutes later, emergency vehicles began arriving. First-responders tended to the wounded, assessed the scene and put on hazardous material gear before searching for other bombs.

Nearly 30 Vancouver Police Department officers were at the raceway and took part in the exercise.

At about 10:30 a.m., a press briefing was held at the site. Few details were readily available, which appeared to be part of the drill.

Twenty Vancouver firefighters were dispatched to Southwest Washington Medical Center to help decontaminate blast victims, and some Vancouver police worked a security detail at an area shelter that was set up after the blast.

At Legacy Salmon Creek Hospital, employees began preparing to receive some of the injured and wounded. The hospital knew it would be taking part in the drill, but it wasn t known when the call for help would come.

Employees were told that a busload of victims from the raceway would be arriving sometime after 11 a.m., but their arrival time kept getting pushed back.

Victims finally began arriving at the hospital on their own around 12:30 p.m. They were student volunteers from the Red Cross Club at Skyview High School.

After arriving, the hospital staff members tried to detect if they were contaminated with radiation. Those who were had to remove their clothes, which were then put in plastic trash bags and thrown into a storage bin. The students were prepared for the exercise and were wearing bathing suits under their clothes.

Once they were stripped of their clothes, they were given towels and then taken to a decontamination tent. Hospital employees in hazmat gear then took them inside the tents and hosed them off with warm water. They were then led into the hospital emergency room.

The scene looked like something out of a Hollywood thriller, but more subdued. Actual patients who were in the area looked confused by what was going on. The fact that everyone was calm and collected seemed to put the real patients in the waiting room at ease.

Skyview senior Shannon Crabtree, 17, was draped in a towel in the waiting room while waiting to be evaluated by a nurse.

I feel like a victim, she said.

The intense drill serves a real purpose. It prepares everyone who would be involved during a real terrorist attack, she said.

It s good to know what to do, she added.

Her sentiments mirrored those of hospital employees.

I m glad we re going through the drill, said Stan Williams, an emergency room technician who volunteered for the exercise.

Everyone taking part in the scenario was taking it very seriously, Williams said while decked out in hazmat gear shortly before victims arrived.

TOPOFF4 may only be a drill, but it s still nerve-wracking, he added.

The scenario allows hospital staff to identify weak spots and problems, said Tamara Paul, a respiratory therapist who took part in the exercise.

After everything is over, everyone knows what they need to work on, she said.

This type of exercise allows local first responders to work with federal and area agencies who would jump into action during an actual event, said Jim Flaherty, firefighter-spokesman with the Vancouver Fire Department.

Everyone involved goes away with a better understanding of their responsibilities, Flaherty said.

Jose Paul Corona can be reached at 360-759-8038 or jose.corona@columbian.com


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