It started with an overturned tank truck leaking hazardous chemicals. That was followed by a chemical/biological attack on the U.S. District Courthouse during a terrorist trial. There were casualties — some fatal. The judge was evacuated. Then the car bomb.
In came the Alexandria Fire, Police and Sheriff departments, the Federal Marshals, the FBI, the Federal Protective Service, Virginia Department of Emergency Management, U.S. Attorney's Office and, of course, the U.S. Marines. There had been a coordinated terrorist attack in Alexandria.
It was all part of "Operation Furies," a five-hour drill to test the readiness of the various agencies to respond to such a scenario and their ability to effectively work together. It drew its name from ancient Greek literature in which the Furies were the "three spirits who exacted justice against those who committed crimes."
In the planning stages for months, it came on the heels of heightening the national terrorist alert system from yellow to orange. That's just one notch below the most critical — red.
"We have been planning this operation for quite awhile, with the fire department taking the lead," said Alexandria city manager Philip Sunderland. "We have also been working hard to keep the community well-informed, so there wouldn't be any panic when it occurred."
Alexandria mayor Kerry Donley said, "Our responsibility is to the citizens, learning how to respond to a terrorist situation and how to work with various state and federal agencies should such a threat ever arise.
"The federal courthouse is in our jurisdiction. We have developed an ongoing dialogue with both federal government agencies and the military. We have to be trained in these types of situations. The bottom line is that the local government is responsible for public safety."
Both Sunderland and Donley, along with a host of other VIPs, were standing in a cordoned-off area last Saturday, watching as hazmat experts dragged "victims" from the area of the overturned tanker as it spewed water onto the ground.
"If this had been an actual spill, the ground would not only have been soaked with potentially deadly chemicals but the air, right where you are standing, would have been filled with toxic fumes," explained Alexandria Chief Deputy Fire Marshal Robert Luckett to the onlookers.
"There are two problems being solved with the overturned tanker. Move the victims out of the spill area, and control the spill," Luckett said.
ALEXANDRIA CHIEF Fire Marshal Michael Conner elaborated, as the victims, being portrayed by Marine volunteers, were dragged nearly 30 yards across the gravel area to a medical/decontamination site. "Once all the victims have been removed, we try to identify just what the liquid is that is leaking from the truck," he said.
"There are approximately 700 people involved in the various scenarios," Conner clarified. "We have Marines, retired Marines, retired firefighters, residents of Carlyle Towers, evaluators and many others."
As members of Alexandria Police Department's SWAT Team, in their black assault suits, wearing gas masks and armed with automatic weapons, guarded the entrance to Carlyle Towers and covered the operations from the roof of the luxury condos, members of the city fire department underwent simulated decontamination at an installation set up on Jamieson Avenue.
Actual water was to be used for this process at the various sites. But due to the bitter cold of the day, with snow and ice covering much of the drill area, the better part of prudence prevailed. However, the Marines still stripped to their skivvies to add to the realism.
INSIDE THE COURTHOUSE was a simulated chemical/biological attack, which had been brought off while the tanker leak was used as a diversionary tactic by the "terrorists." This is where many residents of Carlyle Towers had volunteered to be victims.
John Hackman, U.S. Marshal Service, announced, "There's been a biological/chemical release inside the courthouse. Unfortunately, we have some fatalities. The judge overseeing the terrorist trial has been safely evacuated."
That's when the "victims" began to appear on wheeled stretchers being transported by military and fire department personnel in hazmat suits to the triage/decontamination center at the corner of Elizabeth Lane and Eisenhower Avenue. Each was displaying different symptoms, and each had to be treated and purified.
This service was being performed by U.S. Marines from the Chemical Biological Incident Response Force [CBIRF] currently located in Indian Head, Md. "We have been trained to FEMA standards to meet these types of situations," said 1st Lt. Paul Cabellon, CBIRF information officer.
"Our Navy corpsmen are the only military trained to go downrange in a chemical/biological attack and treat victims in a contaminated area," he emphasized. Those corpsmen, wearing their identifiable blue helmets, had assembled outside the courthouse before entering to assess the situation and retrieve victims.
CBIRF WAS FORMED in 1995 as a result of then Marine Corps commandant Gen. Krulak's perceptive "need for a strategic organization to respond to the growing chemical/biological terrorist threat." It was developed by the Warfighting Laboratory in 1996.
Under the command of a Marine colonel, the unit is composed of "approximately 380 Marines and sailors from 40 different military occupational specialties. The commander reports to the commanding general, 4th Marine Expeditionary Brigade (Anti-Terrorism), headquartered in Camp Lejeune, N.C."
An Initial Response Force of approximately 90 personnel maintains a 24/7 readiness in the event of a terrorist incident. They can deploy via ground transportation within one hour of notification.
One of the participating members of CBIRF was Pfc. Joshua Borum. His specialty is casualty extract. A native of Nashville, Tenn., he has been a Marine for nine months. "Casualty extract is an infantry unit. We respond specifically to chemical/biological warfare attacks in terrorist situations," he said.
His assessment of this drill? "It was a very different scenario. I felt it went very well. Everyone worked together."
That view was borne out by David Buckley, president, Carlyle Towers Home Owners Association. "This was great. We've been working with the U.S. Marshals in preparation for this for a long while. This adds a sense of security to the concerns some of the residents have had living across from the courthouse. Now they feel more secure."
DEPUTY CHIEF David P. Baker, Alexandria Police Department, buttressed that evaluation. "We have response plans in place to identified potential targets. But the real key element here is that we have good working relationships with all elements of Alexandria and the other agencies," he said.
What had started at 8:30 a.m. with simulated chemicals gushing from an overturned tanker quietly concluded at 2 p.m. with the last "victim" emerging from the triage tent to get some hot chocolate. Now comes the in-depth evaluation and re-evaluations.
But it might best be summed up in the words of Theodore Dreiser, author of "An American Tragedy." He wrote in 1911, before World War I, in which mustard gas was a battlefield reality, not a drill, "I acknowledge the Furies, I believe in them, I have heard the disastrous beating of their wings."