State, military conduct terrorism training near Jacksonville

CAMP BLANDING, Fla. (AP) - Three men in bright blue moonsuits
waddled up the steps of the Smithvilla Hotel to discover Wednesday
what made a firefighter deathly ill after he fought a blaze caused
by an explosion.
What they thought was an illegal drug lab, turned out to be a
terrorist hide-out containing nerve gas and evidence of biological
and nuclear weapons.
The explosion, fire, injured firefighter and weapons of mass
destruction were not real, of course, but part of a training
scenario for the military and state agency law officials learning
to handle attacks by terrorists using chemical, biological and
radiological agents.
The training took place at Smithvilla, an entire village built
in the backwoods of Camp Blanding for training military and law
enforcement officers. The Florida National Guard base is about 40
miles south of Jacksonville.
In the scenario, Clay County deputies had been watching the
Smithvilla Hotel for signs of a drug lab when an explosion rocked
the three-story building. County firefighters put out the fire, but
a firefighter had become extremely ill.
After two National Guard Blackhawk helicopters ferried in
equipment, the three men, covered with blue plastic moonsuits,
entered the hotel unaware they had uncovered a terrorist
headquarters.
In the building were a lab to produce the nerve gas serin,
documents about anthrax and documents that would lead them to the
post office next door, where a radioactive device was waiting.
"We are trying to make this as realistic as possible," said
Robert J. Diemer, chief of investigations for the Florida
Department of Environmental Protection. He organized the training
exercise, which included more than 50 representatives of the
National Guard and officials from state law enforcement, health,
transportation and agriculture agencies.
The agencies are involved in an Environmental Response Team to
deal with the aftermath of a terrorist attack, Diemer said.
Agency officials believe such training will make them better
able to deal with terrorist situations. Wednesday's exercise was
the fourth since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11.
After leaving the building, the three men went through a
decontamination process in the middle of the street. They waded
through a children's swimming pool filled with detergent and then
scrubbed and showered before being stripped of their protective
clothing by other officers in white moonsuits and respirators.
Florida National Guard members, who had on-the-job training
hunting anthrax spores in the American Media building in Boca Raton
last fall, were heavily involved in the training.
"We were disappointed something like that happened, but we rose
to the challenge," said Maj. Russ Spengler of the anthrax attack,
which killed one man.
Spengler is the commanding officer of the 44th Weapons of Mass
Destruction Civil Support Team, a 22-person group of full-time Army
and Air National Guard soldiers based at Camp Blanding.
They are on call to leave within two hours of a terrorist attack
or situation in Florida.
One of his men donned a moonsuit and entered the fake hotel in
the scenario.
"This team is designed to detect biological, chemical and
radiological agents and give advice with respect to treatment and
evacuation," Spengler said.
Watching from the sidelines was R.D. Look, chief of
investigations for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Working with the other agencies, Look's gents would gather
evidence and information from areas contaminated by chemical or
biological agents.
Each of the FDLE's seven regions has an anti-terrorism task
force, he said.
Tom Tramel, director of the Department of Environmental
Protection's Division of Law Enforcement, said the joint training
benefits all the agencies.
"By working together, we're increasing our knowledge,
efficiency and expertise," he said.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press.