Learning the drill

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Suspicious characters hovered near the railroad tracks in New Windsor. As the loaded freight train approached, a loud explosion disturbed the calm of a balmy June day. Then a cloud of thick white smoke spewed from a rail car and drifted ominously above the rooftops in the small town of 1,400.

Hundreds were evacuated from their homes. The injured - suffering severe respiratory distress, lacerations and abrasions - lay moaning, while stilled bodies were spread across the grass near the town carnival grounds.

Carroll County's Terrorist Railway Attack Exercise on Friday morning depicted the chaos resulting from the bombing of a rail car tanker filled with 55 tons of anhydrous ammonia, a gas that has a suffocating odor. The common industrial chemical is frequently transported by rail under pressure as liquid. When pressure drops, as it would after an explosion, the chemical reverts to gas.

"People on the grounds ended up in a vapor cloud," said Capt. Gil Roper, an emergency medical technician with the Westminster Fire Engine and Hose Company No. 1. He described anhydrous ammonia as a corrosive chemical that affects the eyes, throat and respiratory system.

More than 150 volunteer emergency personnel took part in the drill, reacting to the simulated explosion and its aftermath.

The first call went out at 8:23 a.m. An ambulance from New Windsor Fire and Hose Company No. 1 arrived on the scene by 8:36 a.m. At 8:54 a.m., the county declared a crisis requiring a multi-agency, multi-task response, officials said.

"If they had evacuated, it would have been everyone within a one-mile radius of the school," said Sgt. Phillip S. Kasten, of the Sheriff's Office, who served as spokesman from the command center on the scene.

Fire and emergency personnel from 12 fire companies responded with aid for the victims and decontamination of the site. The drill involved the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the state fire marshal, the Westminster and Taneytown police, the Maryland State Police and the Sheriff's Office.

A Civil Air Patrol plane circled overhead. A SWAT team arrived early to extricate the three suspects, one of whom came out of a barricaded vacant building and collapsed. Two remained in the building, but all three were eventually captured and arrested.

Pfc. Chris Johanson of the Howard County SWAT team played one of the three suspects. "It's obviously a good experience to be on both sides," Johanson said. "I was hiding in one room and the other guy in another. We had a gun with us."

In addition to the sheriff's mobile command center, the Red Cross posted signs at the new middle school for a shelter with beds and food.

"When the explosion went off, nobody knew what to do," said Mary Garrison, who in her role as a train wreck victim waited about 20 minutes for the first ambulance to arrive. "It was chaotic. Then, emergency people began tagging people to help them. It is really scary and I think we are very unprepared. This is a good teaching exercise that should wake people up."

The drill was scheduled on a weekday, when the members of the county's all-volunteer fire companies are usually at their day jobs and many stations operate with skeleton crews.

Chief Greg Dods of the Winfield Community Volunteer Fire Department set up a decontamination unit on Main Street. The equipment sprays victims with a stream of water to cleanse them of chemicals.

"It was a real-life scenario - the way it would really happen - on a weekday, when you have minimal volunteers," Dods said. "I thought it went pretty well. Everybody worked well together, communicated well and got the job done."

However, Ian McHale, 17, who played a victim, said that the length of time taken to set up the response would have been unacceptable in a real-life situation. "If this was an emergency, we would be dead by now," he said.

A few victims like Rachel Gibbs, 18, who "died" in the explosion, voiced similar concerns. "There was a big explosion and we died," she said. "I have just been lying here, watching what is going on. It took them a while to come over and say 'no breathing, no pulse.' If they had gotten here in under a half-hour, I might have been saved."

Several of the injured fretted about the lack of attention. Reba Wolfe, 11, waved a white tissue hoping to attract help.

"I have been yelling and yelling, but nobody has helped me yet," Reba said.

However, Reba was among the least injured and Gibbs was beyond help. Neither was a priority for the crews who dealt first with the worst cases.

"We can't breathe, but they are not getting to us in a hurry," said a wheezing Rebecca Bosley, a nursing student at Carroll Community College who "knows how to act these symptoms."

Her classmate, Angela Robinson, said she had practiced triage in class, but the exercise gave more compelling lessons.

The drill gave volunteers an up-close look at what is involved in an emergency response. Each followed a short script that detailed his or her part in the exercise and the symptoms to be exhibited.

Alex Schiller, 13, among about 18 cadets from the Carroll squadron of the Civil Air Patrol, would have speeded up the response in the exercise.

"They need to be more realistic about it and get here faster," he said.

Gale Taylor, 48, of Taneytown said the drill gave responders "a chance to practice, and gave us an opportunity to know that if something were to happen, where to go, what to do, and the procedures that are followed." She dismissed any apparent disorganization, saying, "It's really hard to get everyone on the same page at the same time."

The Department of Homeland Security insists on practice drills, such as Carroll's, and ties grant funding to the exercises. The county used a portion of its $607,000 federal grant to pay costs associated with the drill, officials said.

"This was strictly a training exercise with no rehearsal," said Vivian D. Laxton, Carroll's public information administrator. "We will be doing this type of training annually to one degree or another."

An informal assessment late Friday was "more positive than negative," Laxton said. Organizers will review comments and gather criticisms. The county has 60 days to craft its formal assessment for Homeland Security officials.

From the command center, Kasten reported at about 11 a.m. that "the Haz-Mat team has arrived and done their meter readings. The cloud has dissipated and anyone evacuated can return home."

Sun staff writers Ellie Baublitz, Sheridan Lyons and Jill Stone contributed to this article.

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