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 federal agencies responsible for monitoring the activities of suspected terrorist organizations were deeply disturbed by the Tokyo attack. Terrorism has taken many forms, including bombing, shooting, hijacking and assassination. In the past, those carrying out the terror have seemingly been satisfied with the use of conventional weapons and tactics in destroying their targets. The use of nerve agent against the public in Tokyo was a significant departure.

That members of Supreme Truth were able to manufacture the Sarin gas device was not surprising the required chemicals and technical literature to make such weapons are available in the commercial marketplace. The shock was the group's willingness to use such an insidious method to terrorize. For many years, the nations of the world have been working on biological weapon and chemical weapon conventions that would forever ban the use of these non-conventional weapons. The biological convention has been ratified by the required number of countries to make the ban on their use an internationally recognized law. The chemical weapons convention, however, has a number of holdouts, including the United States (the government is unsure whether an international ban on chemical weapons is in the country's best interest).

The widespread use of chlorine gas, mustard gas and phosgene during the trench warfare of World War I led most combatants to agree never to use them again in conflicts. The apocalyptic nature of this kind of war instilled fear of the complete annihilation of all parties in a conflict without a shot being fired. Even though many of these weapons remain in our arsenal, it is almost universally accepted that they should never be used. Yet when Sarin gas was used in Tokyo, it was as if the veil on the unspoken threat had been lifted.

Copycat crime has been well documented in the world of terrorism (witness the rash of jetliner hijackings in the late 1960s). The possibility of a Tokyo-style attack in a large U.S. city was tangible enough for federal officials to call for meetings with state and local authorities during the summer of 1994. A follow-up conference was held that November in Bethesda, MD. Emergency service and police department representatives from throughout the United States were present. Attendees were warned by federal agents that they had to anticipate terrorist action using chemical weapons and that they needed to assess their capabilities for handling such an eventuality.

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Photo by Mike Pickett
Responders don hazmat suits in a 1995 drill simulating a chemical attack in New York.

Upon his return from this conference, FDNY Chief Thomas Haring, supervisor of the department's hazardous materials section, briefed Chief James Bullock, head of the FDNY Special Operations Command, on the chemical agent use in Japan and the department's current capability to respond to such an attack.

At a drill, the department tested its competency and readiness to handle such an incident and found deficiencies. Bullock's Special Operations chiefs Haring, Ray Downey, Craig Shelley and John Paolillo determined that the department would use its qualified instructors to develop and train more personnel, augment equipment and enhance response capabilities to deal with a potential attack of this kind. The hazmat section had state-of-the-art equipment for handling man-made disasters but its resources would be limited in a large-scale attack with chemical weapons. In reassessing its capabilities, the department surveyed its members to ascertain which of them had received "NBC" (nuclear, biological and chemical) training through military units. These personnel would be used to augment fire department technical specialists to improve the department's ability to respond.

Contacting these members and using their expertise let the department "jump-start" its preparations. One firefighter, Robert J. Milmore of Rescue Company 3, had completed the U.S. Army's Chemical Officer Advanced Course and was a special staff adviser for NBC preparations while assigned to U.S. forces in Operation Desert Storm (the Persian Gulf war). Milmore recommended to the department that a close interface with the local Army command would be invaluable for borrowing equipment needed for training and preparation.