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Dirty bomb drill in oregon wreaks havoc { September 2007 }

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Officials wreak fake havoc in terror drill

Sarah Muench
The Arizona Republic
Oct. 16, 2007 02:55 PM
A "dirty bomb" exploded over Tempe Tuesday, remotely detonated by federal authorities working a command center inside Chandler's historic Crowne Plaza San Marcos Hotel.

The explosion didn't really happen, except as one of several scenarios created by federal officials hunkered down in the Chandler hotel, headquarters this week for federal, state and local authorities participating in the nation's largest terrorism drill.

TOPOFF 4 involves thousands of participants in Arizona, Oregon and Guam practicing responses to various emergencies. At the center of it all is the hotel ballroom, lined with flat-panel TVs, players at command center type tables with laptop computers and phones. Their job: create fake scenarios that other agencies then must react to in order to test their level of preparation.

"Phoenix has not really dealt with anything catastrophic and it helps prepare the community for such events like the Super Bowl and the Fiesta Bowl," said Michael J. Widomski, a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is the coordinating agency for the exercise, which involves 22,000 participants in Guam, Oregon and Arizona from all levels of government, nationally and internationally, as well as the private sector in a full-scale simulated response to radiological dispersal device, or "dirty bomb."

So far in Day 1 of the drill a variety of scenarios were played out: a Cesium-137 dirty bomb explodes at a power plant in Guam, testing the response of the U.S. territory. The large-scale attack then continued, moving to Portland Tuesday at 9:06 a.m., where another bomb explodes on a bridge.

Then reports of another explosion outside the Pima County Adult Detention Center, but authorities learned it was a crew that hit a gas line. Next, a 12-vehicle collision slows traffic between Phoenix and Tucson. Then at 10:30 a.m. a person is stopped at Sky Harbor airport with a suspicious backpack.

Finally, at 11 a.m., a dirty bomb explodes at Loops 101 and 202 in Tempe. Winds carry the contamination southeast over Tempe and Chandler - and authorities must react.

Inside the hotel ballroom in Chandler, crawling with about 150 federal and local officials, large flat-panel TVs broadcast a fake news network reporting the "news" as it unfolded - with the help of retired TV anchor Forrest Sawyer.

Throughout the week officials will test how they will handle large-scale evacuations and deal with variables that may have been problematic in past disasters, Widomski said.

In the case of a bomb spreading radiation, "What do we tell people here who want to get the hell out of here and go to California or Mexico?" said Michael Murphy, a spokesman for the Arizona Department of Health Services.

Murphy said the exercise would help plan for how to move the general public to safety and will help officials coordinate for both terror and natural disasters, but officials couldn't explain all the details of how that would work Tuesday.

"The difference between natural disasters and manmade disasters is that terrorists can be a lot more calculating," Widomski said.

Also, "envision events possibly putting someone (authorities in charge) over the top," he said.

No traffic or businesses in Chandler were affected Tuesday, and walking near the hotel it was difficult to realize an exercise was occurring inside. But inside federal officials were occupying three-fourths of the hotel's rooms, said Darlene Heavlin, a co-owner of the San Marcos.

She added that officials working the drill would stay awake for the next 72 hours.

"It's definitely not the norm," she said. "For most conventions they go to bed at night."

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