CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - Green smoke filled the air, police
snipers rappelled from a helicopter and biohazard-suited workers
carried bodies from a football stadium Monday, as Charlotte and
Mecklenburg County showed off their nationally praised terrorism
response plan.
The drill involved about 100 members of a multi-agency terrorism
response team that brought together law enforcement officers,
emergency responders and health care providers, along with
equipment ranging from an armored tank to inflatable
decontamination tents.
"It's a great exhibition of teamwork," said Charlotte Mayor
Pat McCrory, who was among the dignitaries who watched from a
small, tented pavilion outside Ericsson Stadium, home of the NFL's
Carolina Panthers.
The scripted scenario involved an attack by a fictional Middle
Eastern terror group, the "Sons of Lebanon," on an Israeli
finance minister as he prepared to speak at a meeting of the
International Monetary Fund. The assassination was followed by a
release of the nerve gas sarin.
The next hour brought waves of emergency units to the scene. A
SWAT team swept in, wearing biohazard suits and gas masks and
toting semiautomatic rifles, while bomb squad members in Kevlar
body armor swept for explosives. Charlotte firefighters set up
inflatable tent showers. A police helicopter hovered over a parking
deck across the street from the stadium, allowing two snipers to
lower themselves into position.
Soon, the "victims" - students training to be nurses and
paramedics - emerged from the stadium and were led through a wall
of water sprayed from a pair of fire department pumper trucks, then
into the decontamination tents. Their clothes placed in evidence
collection bins, they were given temporary clothes and led to
triage areas. Workers also set up a temporary morgue.
Later, participants were shown a video of what would be going on
simultaneously at nearby Carolinas Medical Center, the area's
top-level trauma hospital. The emergency room would be sealed off
and ER workers would be equipped with biohazard suits as they
awaited the arrival of patients from the scene.
"With all of the concern about terrorist incidents and concern
over preparations, this is an opportunity to show people all over
the state that we have the capacity ... to respond to just about
anything that might happen," said Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police
Chief Darrell Stephens.
Officials acknowledged that Monday's tightly controlled scene
and orderly procession of emergency vehicles - never mind the
catered lunch and the piped-in Muzak version of Dire Straits' "Why
Worry" - would likely not be duplicated in a real disaster.
"There's the adrenaline, and other factors you can't anticipate
will be within the environment," McCrory said. "But you have to
be prepared for the basics."
Though the ALERT team (the acronym stands for Advanced Local
Emergency Response Team) has been functional only since last year,
planning for it has been under way since 1997. Members gather for
monthly training sessions similar to the one that was on display
Monday.
The program has received some congressional funding and was
praised by Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge during an August visit
to Charlotte.
McCrory has expressed concern that, as home to two of the
nation's biggest banks and a pair of nearby nuclear power plants,
Charlotte could be a terrorist target. That worry that was echoed
by Dr. Tom Blackwell, an emergency physician at Carolinas Medical
Center and medical director for ALERT.
Blackwell said the only solution is to be well-prepared.
"The reason for our success is simple and straightforward," he
said. "Citizens and visitors to this community benefit from expert
and cooperative leadership at all levels and from all agencies."

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press