Drill at Pro Player Stadium simulates terrorist attack

By Shannon O'Boye, Nancy McVicar and Nicole T. Lesson
Posted May 22 2003

It was a deadly scenario, but it was just a dress rehearsal.

As 7,000 people jumped up to celebrate a seventh-inning home run Wednesday at a Marlins-Braves game in Pro Player stadium, terrorists lobbed bottles of deadly sarin gas into the crowd.

Nearly 2,500 personnel from more than 100 police, fire and health agencies responded and tried to save as many lives as possible. The state conducted the weapons-of-mass-destruction drill to see how prepared South Florida is for a terrorist attack.

The exercises, the largest of their kind in South Florida, took about six months to plan and occurred one day after President Bush raised the risk of terrorist attack to orange, or high.

There are no specific threats against South Florida, but such drills are meant to prepare for any possible threat, said Broward Sheriff Ken Jenne, who heads the Southeast Florida Regional Domestic Security Task Force.

At the end of the day, it was evident that there were some problems and that delays in getting to the "injured" could have cost lives.

It took the rescuers an hour and 10 minutes to get into their hazardous materials suits and get to the victims inside the stadium.

"That's too long, even though it's better than the rest of the nation," Jenne said.

"We know from Columbine and other things, the faster you get in, the more people saved, the safer it is," he said.

About 1,000 volunteers -- mostly high school students -- acted as victims, each getting a color-coded tag that told fire rescue and hospital emergency personnel what their symptoms were.

Hazmat specialists had to try to contain the sarin gas and evacuate the injured from the stadium while firefighter/paramedics prioritized and treated the victims. At the same time, SWAT team members searched for the fictitious terrorists who were seen running from the scene.

Specially trained firefighters worked to pull some of the victims from a staged structural collapse at one end of the stadium, and more "victims" poured into 42 hospitals in Monroe, Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties suffering from everything from anxiety to exposure to the lethal gas.

At Broward General Medical Center, hospital workers activated an emergency decontamination area just outside the Emergency Department for the more critical patients.

Sirens blaring, ambulances pulled up in quick succession, their drivers wearing protective suits and masks. Hospital personnel, also garbed in protective suits and masks, hustled the patients one by one into a shower area. In a real event, they would have been stripped naked and scrubbed down with a soapy solution.

Inside, a doctor assessed the patients, giving nurses quick instructions to get them on ventilators to assist their breathing, to give one-milligram injections of atropine to counteract the chemical's effects and to treat their other symptoms.

Similar scenarios were played out at hospitals across the four-county region.

At the end of the day, Jenne gave everyone involved in the drill an A-minus.

"But I'm an easy grader," he quipped.

Some of the volunteers and police and fire officials who stood or sat in the heat for seven hours were tougher critics.

"It was fair, middle of the road," said Rose Palvolog, a member of Tamarac's Community Emergency Response Team who played the role of victim. "The response was not quick enough."

Communication problems have plagued similar drills held recently in Chicago, Seattle and Tampa, but there were no major communication problems Wednesday, said Hector Pesquera, special agent in charge of the FBI's Miami office.

Government at every level is committing money to improve emergency communications in the hopes of preventing a disaster like the one on Sept. 11 when so many firefighters and police officers were killed.

"Primarily, we're putting our own people at risk" when communication breaks down, said Miami-Dade Fire Rescue spokeswoman Shari Holbert Lipner. "That was very evident on Sept. 11."

Staff Writers Glenn Singer and Nancy Othon contributed to this report.

Nancy McVicar can be reached at nmcvicar@sun-sentinel.com or 954-356-4593.