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Dress Rehearsal for Disaster

The drill included local, state and federal law enforcement and fire and rescue teams.

Terrorists storm the Pentagon's gates and a gunfight erupts with security forces. Moments later, a suicide bomber blows up a bus outside the Pentagon Metro station. As the battle at the gate turns into a hostage situation, a second bomb forces the evacuation of a nearby office building. The scenario has all the elements of the next 9/11, but the only explosions Wednesday came from small flash-bang grenades, and actors played the bloodied wounded as the Pentagon conducted Gallant Fox III, an emergency exercise.

"This was the first time we staged multiple events in multiple locations," John Jester, director of the Pentagon Force Protection Agency (PFPA), said. "That puts a lot of stress on our emergency system at one time."

The drill brought together local, state and federal law enforcement from throughout the Washington Metro area. Fire and rescue teams also joined in the effort. As the Pentagon's security agents battled the gunmen, rescuers hustled to pull the injured from the wreckage of the bus and triage them — prioritizing their injuries in terms of what is most urgent. The results of the drill have yet to be released, but Jester said the Pentagon's security reaction was quick and guards played it by the book.

"We learned that communication becomes a real challenge when you have several emergencies going on," said Jester. "Emergency workers focus on what's going on right in front of them. When you've got events in more than one place, you've got a lot of information passing by at once. It can add to the confusion."

To add to the realism at the evacuated federal office building on Jefferson Plaza, the site of the second bomb blast, rescue workers practiced how to report disaster information back to headquarters with the help of some rather gruesome posters. Pulling up to the building, Jester said, they found themselves confronted by enlarged photographic images taken from the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon and from the Oklahoma City federal building. Radio in hand, workers had to report what they saw to bring the right resources to the scene.

"From an Arlington County perspective, the response time was very good," said Jester. "The county's Fire Station 5 is right by us."

SINCE THE 9/11 attacks at the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, emergency preparedness has become a paramount concern throughout Northern Virginia. Some of the mock wounded got transported to Virginia Hospital Center, testing its capacity to handle an emergency. The hospital got about 15 patients, according to Dr. Peter Liu, an emergency room staff physician.

"I was very impressed with the staff's ability to handle the situation," said Liu. "But we had to end the drill early because the ER was becoming very busy. We had real patients to take care of."

Liu had only just begun working at the hospital on the day of the 9/11 attacks. He remembers seeing the first reports of planes crashing into the World Trade Center on a hospital television. At the time, Liu was working with the hospital's emergency coordinator who, he said, recommended they conduct a drill in case an attack occurred in the Washington area. But minutes later the Pentagon was hit and the wounded started coming.

"It started off as a normal day," said Liu. "It was a wake-up call for us, for the entire U.S. really, that we had to start thinking more about being prepared for the unexpected."

The hospital, according to a report released by the county, saw 44 patients that day.

"I thought we did a wonderful job handling the surge of people," he said. "Sometimes you just have to cope with what the situation deals you and be resourceful."

Depending on patients' injuries, Liu said, it can take some time for them all to be seen by a doctor, anywhere from a few seconds to an hour. But in a terrorist attack, he said, there are added steps hospitals have to take. Fears of biological, nuclear or chemical contamination from an attack require hospital staff to deploy contamination tents outside the emergency room, which was done during the drill. Although a fake disaster can only do so much when it comes to preparing for the worst, Jester said, getting local agencies and responding groups to work together is one of the exercise's real, practical values.

"The more you drill together, the more you learn how different organizations work," said Jester. "You have working relationships that develop and trust that builds up. That trust is part of what helps you focus on your mission."