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Last Updated

16 May 2003

Source: Associated Press, May 16, 2003

U.S. Bioterrorism Drills End in Chicago

By MEGAN REICHGOTT, Associated Press Writer

CHICAGO (AP) -- It's been a busy week for rescue workers: There was the detonation of a mock "dirty bomb" in Seattle, a simulated deadly plague in Chicago and pretend terrorists dashing about in both cities.

A national bioterrorism drill ended late Thursday in Chicago with a raid on the fictional group responsible for the week of chaos. The drill was intended to gauge the nation's readiness to deal with simultaneous terrorist attacks.

"If we are going to make our response system stronger, we first have to identify where strengths as well as weaknesses exist," said Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge.

The exercises, which were spearheaded by the Department of Homeland Security, cost an estimated $16 million and involved more than 8,500 people from 100 federal, state and local agencies, the American Red Cross and the Canadian government.

It began Monday in Seattle with the simulated detonation of a radioactive "dirty bomb." In the script, a fictitious plague had been sprayed across Chicago but hadn't yet been detected. Volunteer patients began streaming into hospitals Tuesday and were clamoring for antibiotics by Thursday.

Thursday was the busiest day for Chicago-area emergency workers. A collapsed building and the release of a chemical at a chemical plant in suburban Bedford Park began the day.

Dozens of fire trucks, ambulances and special teams trailers streamed into the site of the mock building collapse, which was complete with a very real pile of rubble.

By evening, rescuers also had to contend with a mock disaster at Midway Airport. A medical helicopter had apparently crashed into a plane full of passengers as it made an emergency landing. Smoke billowed toward the sky and 200 pretend victims covered in gory makeup littered the runway.

Hours later, SWAT teams rushed a building in Chicago while FBI agents dropped from helicopters as part of a raid on a fake biological lab and the roundup of make-believe terrorists.

"The whole operation went very smoothly," said Larry Langford, spokesman for the Office of Emergency Communications. "The twists and turns injected caused us to rethink and brought up issues that we were not aware of and disasters that we might not have planned on. It was eye-opening."

In all, about 200 firefighters and 60 police officers took part in the Seattle drills. On Thursday, about 200 government officials and business representatives convened at a downtown hotel conference room to discuss how the state would cope with the long-term effects of an attack.

"It's very clear when you have a fire or a building collapses what your priorities are, who's in charge," said Eric Holdeman, director of King County's Office of Emergency Management. "It becomes much more complicated when you try to go back to business as usual."

A full report on the week's drills was expected by fall.

During a tour of Chicago, Ridge said that although the city's hospitals and health workers were reaching their saturation point Thursday with hundreds of mock patients and fatalities, the area still had available hospital beds and antibiotics from emergency stockpile.

In nearby Bridgeview, authorities turned a community center into a medical facility to pass out antibiotics to patients worried they had been exposed to the fictitious deadly plague.

Volunteer patients in yellow shirts gave their medical information and went through a series of stations before receiving medicine from the national stockpile of antibiotics.

"I'm just amazed at the way they've handled everything. It's going nice and smooth," said Nicholas Saldana, one of about 150 volunteers who cycled through the stations every half hour.