Originally created 07/12/01

SRS stages terrorist attack



Todd Matteson lay limp on a red tarp stretched across a Savannah River Site roadway, minutes from death. Sweat oozed from his pores, his lungs contracted in violent spasms, and his every breath came slow and weak.

At least that's what the card around his neck said.

On Wednesday, Mr. Matteson was a mock casualty of a mock terrorist attack in a serious game of pretend.

He was one of 300 people to participate in the federal nuclear-weapons site's annual emergency preparedness exercise. The drill is designed to test the site's ability to respond to disaster.

Although previous drills have tested the site's ability to handle radioactive spills from its numerous nuclear facilities, SRS officials chose a new challenge this year, a site spokesman said.

"Weapons of mass destruction have been in the news a lot for the last several years, so we used that as our scenario and exercised our capabilities to respond," said Rick Ford, a U.S. Department of Energy spokesman at SRS.

Besides SRS entities, participating agencies included Medical College of Georgia Hospital, Doctors Hospital, Aiken County Emergency Medical Services, Aiken County Coroner Sue Townsend, Federal Bureau of Investigation and an explosives-disposal unit from Fort Jackson.

The various players spent more than five hours responding to various events set into motion by the faked release of nerve gas on a tour bus.

At the crime scene, SRS hazardous-materials workers donned white chemical-hazard jumpsuits, complete with masks, rubber boots and air tanks.

As a line of ambulances waited nearby, the workers hosed down the 35 casualties to decontaminate them. Each victim was tagged with a color-coded wristband: green, for those with light injuries; yellow, for victims with more serious problems; and red, for those near death.

Across the site, "reporters" - actually members of the site's public-relations team - barked questions at SRS spokesmen, demanding information in advance of a scheduled 10:45 a.m. news conference.

SRS spokeswoman Susie Grant had the unfortunate job of placating the media mob, and her co-workers seemed to enjoy peppering her with questions.

In particular, these would-be journalists wanted to know about a statement released by the "National Earth Response Front," claiming responsibility for the morning's attack and threatening to detonate another device.

In the SRS emergency operations center, located deep within one of the site's many squarish, gray concrete buildings, word was out that security officials had discovered and disarmed the second device.

The center was electric with human activity. Workers fielded phone calls, sometimes several at once, while glancing at three floor-to-ceiling video screens that provided constant updates on the situation.

In the back row, with Westinghouse Savannah River Co. President Joe Buggy looking on, Energy Department spokesman Mr. Ford and his Westinghouse counterpart, Will Callicott, discussed in hushed tones a faux TV news report of the event.

"I don't know if it's true or not," Mr. Callicott said.

"They must not know that there's a second bomb," responded Mr. Ford.

Critiques of the site's response to the drill will be completed in coming weeks, Mr. Ford said. Contractors can face penalties for inadequacies.

Reach Brandon Haddock at (706) 823-3409 or bhaddock@augustachronicle.com.