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Playing Terrorist

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Gabriel’s pièce de résistance at Shea—his “best thing”—was to plant a second, small radiological “package” in a car next to the press gate. Gabriel had it assembled by the Department of Energy, with original DoE documentation for medical-isotope transport. Its existence was kept secret even from the Titan contractors and other controllers of the play. Nobody knew about it, except for Gabriel and the head of Shea Stadium security, who together put it in the car.

“The package was a red herring,” Gabriel says. “The narrative of it would be that a Mets fan transporting medical isotopes stopped off to watch a game. But it was still up to the cops to find it, analyze it, and figure out—with all hell breaking loose—that it was not a secondary device.”

As standard procedure within the exercise, several dozen officers were assigned to sweep the parking lot with mirrors on rollers, dogs, and radiological pagers. They found the package, cordoned off the car, and called the Bomb Squad, which suited up, removed it, and determined it wasn’t a danger.

Gabriel and the OEM team also developed the script for May 2004’s Operation Transit Safe, based directly on the Madrid bombings in March, with Community Research Associates, a contractor that has composed disaster and mock-terror exercises for the CIA and the Defense Department. Community Research’s vice-president, Kyle Olson, was the point man in New York. The company had the exercise up and running two months after Madrid.

“You had two trains pull into Bowling Green,” says Olson. “The notional time was midday, when it would be crowded. In reality, we did it over a weekend night. While the trains were in there, the backpacks ‘exploded.’ Although ten or fifteen pounds of C-4 might not seem like a significant amount of material, in an enclosed space such as a train station, you get a tremendous magnifying effect.”

The number of dead and wounded in Bowling Green produced by such a series of explosions was calculated to be some 400, played by police and fire recruits. In Madrid, seven of the ten bombs exploded on two trains in the crowded Atocha station, with the remaining three charges blowing up two trains in stations down the line. Although the bombs imagined in the exercise were smaller than those used in Madrid, the Bowling Green bombs were underground, amplifying the explosions.

“To keep the play fair, as in a real terrorist attack, none of the agencies knows the narrative beforehand.”

And the station’s cramped architecture caused further difficulty: To evacuate the cars and platforms, the responders had to descend to a common hall running under the tracks before exiting to the street.

According to the script, one of the entrances was blocked by rubble. The scriptwriters threw in a couple more insidious tweaks, known in the trade as “injects.” The first was that two of the knapsacks did not explode. Three of the bombs had not exploded in Madrid, which, in fact, subsequently led the Spanish counter-terror units to the bombers. “There are always complications,” Olson says. “Obviously, the unexploded devices on these trains needed to be cleared before they could attempt to rescue some of the victims, but because of the rubble, the responders had to come in through a different entrance.”

“Those victims did not move from those stairs,” says Gabriel. “In fact, we also had to imagine a New York crowd in that not everybody would be speaking English. We had a deaf victim and a blind one with a Seeing Eye dog. Now that’s the last thing those rescuers needed at that point—people screaming in other languages.”

Gabriel smiles. “But that’s what they got. Hey, it’s not Star Trek, you know? You’re a rescuer, you might want to get beamed over to the scene, but you’re not gonna get beamed over to the scene.”

After each exercise, primary participants gather for what’s called the “hotwash,” a fast round-table analysis of what it all meant, prior to a deeper look at the data collected by the controllers. “At the hotwash for Shea, we talked about staging and communication,” says Gabriel. “We had the incident command in one place, which made for great communication but was crowded. Did we put a lot of pressure on ’em? That’s what a good exercise will do. They’re communicating, that’s what we like to hear. The main value of these things is that you get to know the people with whom you would be dealing in a real event.”

And that, more than any command protocol laid down by City Hall, may be the key to getting through whatever awaits us.


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