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Terrorism: Up Close and Personal

Robert and Kim Uttenweiler were in the U.S. District Courthouse in Alexandria last Saturday morning when it came under a biological and chemical terrorist attack. Bob didn't make it. Kim did.

That was the scenario the two Carlyle Tower residents volunteered to act out as part of "Operation Furies," the five-hour, full-scale exercise to test the city's and federal agencies' readiness to meet a terrorist attack. They were impressed with what they witnessed firsthand.

"We arrived at our prearranged location in the courthouse about 8 a.m. and signed up for different situations. I was to be a heart attack victim, and Kim signed up to be an asthmatic. That was appropriate because she does have asthma. My heart is OK as far as I know," Bob explained.

"Unfortunately, I didn't last too long. One of the federal marshals came over and told me I was going to be a fatality. So much for a long role," he reflected sitting in his condo last Sunday morning after his round trip to the great beyond.

Kim, on the other hand, who was taken to a different part of the courthouse, got to do the whole nine yards. "I did it all, even going to the triage center to be treated and decontaminated. The only thing was they didn't actually use water because of the cold weather. I was somewhat disappointed in that," she said.

Operation Furies was a terrorist preparedness exercise to test not only the readiness of city and federal agencies in the event of such an incident but also their ability to communicate and work together effectively and efficiently under such a situation. It was staged in and around the U.S. District Courthouse on Jamieson Avenue and involved more than 700 participants.

"Each victim was given a card explaining the symptoms they were to act out depending on their particular condition," Bob explained. "Two of the persons in our group were to exhibit extreme anxiety bridging on going crazy. They were so good one of the marshals was getting a little nervous."

KIM NOTED she was very impressed with the professionalism of the Marines and the marshals. "We were all assigned different levels of whatever ailment we were experiencing. They were very careful not to tell us what the chemical or biological agent was," she said.

In addition to the 40 resident volunteers from Carlyle Towers, there were 60 courthouse staff members and some of their family members, including children. The scene was scripted as a terrorist trial being witnessed by citizens, courthouse personnel and news media, when they came under attack by terrorists unleashing chemical and biological agents.

"We were given a briefing last Thursday night as to what was going to happen and what would be involved. They were very thorough and said that if any of us wanted to withdraw, they would certainly understand. Nobody opted out," Bob said.

"It was apparent during the briefing that all the agencies were working well together. But, now I'm sure all the leadership from the various groups will be concentrating on where they can improve," he speculated.

"They were very anxious to involve the residents. Most of us are very supportive of their efforts and particularly wanted this exercise to go smoothly. When they put the notice under the door explaining what was going to happen and asking for volunteers, we were Nos. 1 and 2 on the list," Kim said.

THAT NOTICE WAS circulated on Jan. 17 to all of the condos' 1,000 residents. It stated, "Residents chosen as role players will see firsthand government agencies' response to a critical incident and have an opportunity to provide feedback in a debriefing after the exercise."

It also emphasized in an underlined sentence, "The exercise is not in response to any change in the threat level." Coincidentally, just the day before, U.S. attorney general John Ashcroft, in conjunction with the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, did elevate the threat level from yellow to orange, just one designation short of the critical red.

That was for real. It was not affiliated with Operation Furies.

As part of their feedback, the Uttenweilers expressed the feeling, "If more people can be saved during a real emergency and if emergency personnel can get more time with their families as a result of their preparedness, then it was more than worthwhile. We also want the people trying to save us to be as safe as possible."

As a final reflection on their experience, just across the street from their home, Kim expressed the opinion that people dying from a terrorist attack is very remote. "If you're really afraid of dying, don't drive the Beltway," she insisted.

Bob didn't vote yea or nay on that conclusion. But then his assigned role on Saturday may have influenced his thinking.