COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - The scenario was the kind of day emergency
officials pray never happens: Five potential terrorists attacks
spread across the state from Beaufort to Greenville.
But it was only a test, conducted by the state Emergency
Management Division.
Authorities mobilized their response to the five incidents
Tuesday at the division's headquarters. On Wednesday, the teams
went into the field as the scenarios played out in real time.
"We want to be prepared to protect our citizens and practicing
is the best way we can do it," Emergency Management Director Ron
Osborne said.
Osborne visited several of the sites, including one at the South
Carolina Fire Academy's more than 200-acre campus tucked in the
woods on the outskirts of Columbia.
For Wednesday's drill, the academy became Columbia Metropolitan
Airport, resident training manager Phillip Russell said.
The mock incident started when the two-man flight crew of a
cargo plane noticed two strangers posing as employees loading
packages on their plane. The men began to fight, and one of the
crewmen was severely injured while the other was taken hostage.
The State Law Enforcement Division, state health officials and a
special rapid-response team rushed to the scene.
Normally more officers from more agencies would go to a
dangerous standoff like this, but at the same time, the drill had
four other potential terror incidents going on other places in the
state to stretch emergency responders to their limit.
In Beaufort, a ship was spewing a chemical agent into the air.
Meanwhile, a bomb exploded near the entrance to a public event in
Greenville, and a call about a bomb in a catering truck at
Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia quickly turned into another
chemical attack.
More than 2,000 emergency officials, law officers and volunteers
acting as victims participated in the drills.
The state activated all its rapid-response teams, 14 of which
include special agents trained at detecting and responding to a
chemical or biological attack. The other team combines SLED agents
with specially trained workers from the Department of Health and
Environmental Control.
"There have been a few minor problems," Osborne said around
noon, after the drills had been going on for about four hours.
"But that's the reason why we do an exercise like this."
Officials conducting the drills keep all outside interference
away to make the exercise as true as possible, Russell said.
The suspects are trained to react to how they are treated by law
enforcement. And even though Wednesday's incident goes along just
like it was scripted and the terrorists give up without harming
anyone else, it could have easily ended a different way, Russell
said.
"Since this is real world, they might just decide to barge in
the plane and go 'Boom, boom, boom, you're all gone,' " Russell
said.
Instead, the negotiator continued to talk to the terrorists over
a radio channel, one time offering to get the suspects some food,
at another, skillfully deflecting a request from a terrorist to
talk to Fox News Channel's Geraldo Rivera.
The radio transmissions are monitored by other participants and
consultants who will evaluate everyone's actions after the drill is
over.
Meanwhile, armed personnel carriers rumbled across what was
supposed to be the tarmac, protecting agents who were trying to
determine if any biological or chemical agents had been released.
At the same time, a SLED bomb disposal team combed the area near
the plane to look for explosives.
"Notice how methodical everyone involved in this is," Russell
said. "They haven't been going 100 mph. They take their time and
think of every move they need to make."
Emergency officials will spend the next few days reviewing
results of the drill and figuring out what could be done better,"
Osborne said.
"Heaven forbid terrorists should ever attack South Carolina,"
Osborne said. "But if they do, we will be ready."

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)