Sarin: The Unspoken Threat

Robert J. Milmore and Thomas A. McHale describe how a tragedy in Japan is teaching America's firefighters to prepare for the worst.


The police and firefighters of Tokyo, Japan, could not possibly have imagined the diabolical nature of the emergency they were responding to on the morning of March 20, 1994. The subway system in downtown Tokyo seemed to be in chaos as passengers at five different train stops were collapsing...


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The police and firefighters of Tokyo, Japan, could not possibly have imagined the diabolical nature of the emergency they were responding to on the morning of March 20, 1994. The subway system in downtown Tokyo seemed to be in chaos as passengers at five different train stops were collapsing, convulsing and in some cases dying from exposure to unknown fumes or gases.

What the authorities did not know initially was that an extremist religious group, Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth), had declared war on the government and was carrying out a terrorist attack against civilians. Enraged by actions the Japanese government had taken to curtail its activities, the group allegedly carried out the attack with one of the world's most lethal forms of chemical agent, Sarin nerve gas. This nerve gas, even in a highly diluted form, can be fatal if contacted or inhaled.

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Photo by the U.S. Army
Learning to decontaminate a vehicle in the Live Agent Chamber at Fort McClellan, AL.

Sarin was discovered in Germany before World War II by scientists developing pesticides. While experimenting with organic phosphorous compounds, they created poisons that were highly lethal against insects but so potent that they were fatal to humans. The compounds have an immediate disruptive effect on the body's central nervous system and can cause death in just minutes.

The application of these nerve agents Sarin, Soman and Tabun to weapons of war was quickly appreciated by the German military, which began a secret program to stockpile nerve gas for artillery and aerial bombs. (At the close of the war, the Germans had begun to develop a Sarin gas warhead for their V-2 rocket.) The grand scheme of Hitler's was thwarted as the time needed to complete the project ran out. (See story on facing page.)

In the Tokyo incident, authorities were faced with train passengers in a panic as the colorless and odorless Sarin caught its victims totally unaware. Thousands fled the trains and platforms for the exits to the streets and fresh air. People emerged on the streets covering their faces and collapsing as the effects of the gas overtook them.

Initially, none of the emergency services responders understood a terrorist action was in progress. Certainly no one realized they were being exposed to highly lethal nerve agent. As treatment for the injured began in earnest, their common symptoms of dizziness, blurred vision, constricted pupils, foaming saliva at the mouth and, in some cases, severe muscular convulsion revealed a pattern. Doctors at the scene suddenly understood the cause as nerve agent and ordered atropine injections for all symptomatic patients. The actions of the police and firefighters were heroic as they suffered exposure injuries while treating those in need.

As circumstances stabilized, police determined that chemical devices had been placed on trains of three separate commuter lines that converge at the Kasumigaseki Station (the hub of the government offices). These trains would have arrived during the peak of rush hour within minutes of each other, creating a much larger killing zone. As the devices began to emit their deadly fumes, however, the trains stopped short at outlying stations. The final count was 12 dead and over 5,000 injured (Time, April 10, 1994).

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Photo by the U.S. Army
Hazmat responders leave a decontamination site in the Live Agent Chamber.

The terror felt by all who were attacked was staggering. Although nerve gas attacks have allegedly taken place in wartime, this was the first reported use by a group in what could be characterized as a terrorist action against civilians. Police raided locations of Supreme Truth members and confiscated large quantities of organic phosphorous chemical, the base ingredient of Sarin. These were homemade devices of a crude construction, yet insidiously effective.

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