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Drill simulates bombing at mall { October 25 2004 }

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October 25, 2004

Drill simulates bombing at UP mall
Area agencies practice response to terrorist attack

Tribune Staff Writer

MISHAWAKA -- The food court rang with the cries of the mangled victims Sunday morning, as security guards donned latex gloves and waded through the carnage looking for survivors.

Then, a teenage girl, sprawled and bloodied on the floor under an overturned chair, giggled.

It was a moment of levity in a scenario that was no laughing matter for the scores of emergency workers who gathered at University Park Mall Sunday morning, responding to a scary what-if -- a drill simulating a terrorist bomb attack on the food court at the mall.

Organized by Memorial Hospital, the exercise provided a glimpse into a situation that no one wants to see, but that emergency medical personnel, law enforcement personnel and hospitals have to be prepared for.

Stephen Garrison, who headed up the drill for Memorial, said the once-a-year event, funded by the participating agencies, provides an opportunity for departments to work together in a crisis situation, but with a lot less at stake than during an actual emergency.

"A big part of these exercises is giving all these different agencies a chance to work together," he said. "They get a chance to meet different people, find out who they are going to be talking to if the real thing ever happens."

More than 15 different agencies, from the FBI to area fire and police departments, took part in Sunday's event, which provided a close-up look at what might happen if terrorists took aim at the Tidbits Field food court during a crowded lunch rush.

No effort was spared to make the scene as realistic as possible, with volunteer victims doused in fake blood and wailing, shrapnel scattered across the floor and tables and chairs scattered and overturned to simulate the structural damage that might occur in a real bomb attack.

Outside, the scene was just as ominous, as K-9 handlers led bomb-sniffing dogs through the parking lot, ambulances queued to cart away limping victims, and aircraft, including an Air Angels helicopter ambulance and a Civil Air Patrol Cessna, circled the macabre scene.

Lt. Col. John Bryan of the Indiana Wing of the Civil Air Patrol said the event gave his fellow airmen a great opportunity to test their response capability, a capability he said was tested on Sept. 11 when Civil Air Patrol fliers made flights over Ground Zero to take aerial photographs.

"These drills make all the difference," he said, noting that more than a dozen of the volunteer "victims" were Civil Air Patrol cadets putting in community service hours. "Our air crews are given the opportunity to practice working in conjunction with ground units, which is an important component of our job."

The drill also gave participants a taste of the uncertainty involved in a response to a real emergency. Throughout the exercise, questions crackled through the radios perched on the hips of participants: Do the victims need decontaminating? Where should the ambulances stage? Where does the police tape need to go?

And what about the biggest question of the day: What if there is another bomb? In fact, to put that element of surprise into the exercise, planners did plant secondary bombs around the scene, including one that "exploded," causing nearby rescue workers to be labeled as injured.

The scenario gave the South Bend Police Bomb Squad a chance to try out its high-tech gear, from portable X-ray equipment to $15,000 suits designed to protect the wearers from a nearby blast.

"We practice constantly," said Gary Horvath, Community Relations Division chief of the South Bend Police Department. "But an exercise like this gives the guys a chance to work under a little stress, and it makes it important for them to know their equipment inside and out."

Eventually, all of the bombs were neutralized, and the victims were all shuttled to area hospitals for treatment. That signaled the time for Garrison and other leaders of the group to compare notes on the drill. The verdict?

"It went very well," Garrison said. "As with any drill, we have used it to identify some areas we need to work on, like interdepartmental communication.

"But we had more departments turn out than ever before, so I think people can see the value in conducting this kind of event."

Staff writer Adam Jackson

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