Connecticut Officials Say Terrorism Drill 'Feels Real'

LONDON, Conn. (AP) -- A simulated chemical weapons attack in eastern Connecticut revealed some gaps in the state's emergency communications system, but homeland security officials gave the state high overall marks for its response.

The events, part of the world's largest-ever terrorism drill, included an explosion on the New London waterfront and hundreds of volunteers playing victims of a suspected mustard gas attack.

Officials were counting on the drill, called TOPOFF 3, to evaluate the response plans developed after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

''We feel very confident that as we got information in, we got it out,'' said Mike Wolf, Connecticut's top FBI agent, who coordinated with officials in New Jersey, Washington, Canada and England.

The drill was expected to last most of the week and involve public safety officials from local fire departments up to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., a member of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, was observing the operations in Connecticut.

The drill in Connecticut followed an early morning simulated attack in New Jersey, where a biological agent was supposedly released.

In New London, buses were overturned and volunteers playing victims wore gruesome makeup to simulate blisters and bloody scars.

While people generally applauded the state's ability to share information at the highest levels, local officials said a number of glitches kept them from getting information quickly.

''I think it flows from the bottom up pretty well,'' New London City Manager Richard Brown said. ''I'm not so sure about from the state down.''

He said his emergency crews never received word that Gov. M. Jodi Rell had opened an emergency operations center at the state armory in Hartford or that she declared a state of emergency.

He also said a local request for the state to release health information about mustard gas got scuttled by the state's bureaucracy.

Firefighters were generally pleased with radio improvements that allowed top officials to quickly communicate, but said more people needed access to the new technology.

''We're looking for that kind of thing,'' said James Thomas, commissioner of the state Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security. ''It's important that we look at everything we know we're going to have some work we need to do.''

Officials said such communication missteps, while important to address, are to be expected. They were pleased that many of the communication breakdowns seen during the World Trade Center attacks were not repeated.

''You have to accept, with so much going on, that you can't get all the information exactly when you want it,'' said Leonard Boyle, the state's public safety commissioner.

The drill was to continue Tuesday and was expected to last through much of the week. After the initial response was coordinated, the FBI and state police were expected to take a lead role in investigating the attack.

Rell said Monday evening that she was proud of the state's response. Earlier in the day, she met with top commissioners, declared a state of emergency and raised the state's alert level to orange, or ''high.''

Her commissioners huddled in a glass conference room dubbed ''the fish bowl'' at the armory in Hartford as top aides shuttled updates in and out of the room. Representatives from all state agencies worked the phones as a virtual news broadcast kept officials update.

As part of the drill, Rell briefed volunteers posing as reporters at a news conference. She explained that an explosion had released a chemical into the air and urged residents to stay inside and close their windows.

''Please understand that we are in control,'' she said.

Though the drill felt real to those who participated, there were some indications it was just a simulation. As Rell entered the briefing room about 2:30, an aide said to her, ''This is the fake press.''

Then, shortly before 3 p.m., victims started showing up at Hartford hospitals, even though that would have been too soon for them to arrive. Rell had said ambulances weren't going to the scene because of contamination.

But participants said such glitches only added to the chaotic feel that made the drill seem like a real emergency.

U.S. Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, toured the mock attack site in New London on Monday afternoon and headed to New Jersey later in the evening.

''One of the things that really struck me is how hard everyone has to work for an exercise,'' Cox said. ''It's every bit as much work as if it were real.''

Cox said he was impressed by the way Connecticut officials responded to the mock attack.

''The level of commitment from the first-responders is extraordinary,'' Cox said. ''I don't think we will know for several weeks, indeed months, exactly how well we did and where the problems are, but I can tell you immediately that the personal commitment of every single one of the first responders that I have observed and talked to is through the roof. I have no doubt they're doing everything they can do.''