Playing Terrorist

The ability to sow confusion is a big part of terror. Within the city’s truly heroic response to 9/11, the narrative was one of epic confusion, the fog of war brought to a sunny day in Manhattan. The Fire Department’s scar tissue from its losses in the towers four years ago was vividly displayed last Monday on Chambers Street, which was blocked for two hours by hundreds of firefighters demonstrating their support for Chief Peter Hayden’s City Council testimony in protest of the city’s new emergency-response protocols. Ultimately he bowed to the document, which ceded FDNY control of catastrophic radiological or chemical attacks to the NYPD. But Hayden, who was in the North Tower command post as the FDNY commanders famously did not receive the intelligence from an NYPD chopper that the tower was buckling, said his piece. “I’m confused,” he testified, “my firefighters are confused, and the police officers in the street are going to be confused, and there is going to be a compromise of safety.”

Training our responding agencies to function within the fog of war has become an urgent priority. Designing and staging mock terror attacks—reality shows, essentially, for whole urban and national bureaucracies—are growth industries. At the national level, the exercises run under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security. The largest of these are the biannual TOPOFF (Top Officials) exercises with scripts running in the hundreds of pages and Cecil B. DeMille–size casts of thousands, including Cabinet-level participation and stand-ins for the president.

New York City’s own mock-terror mastermind, the man who, for the last three years, presided over the design and implementation of all New York City war games, is Edward Gabriel, the Office of Emergency Management’s deputy commissioner for planning and preparedness. Gabriel, a feisty, mid-forties pug of a fellow who was an FDNY EMS chief for 28 years, was the hinge between contractors, the venues, and the many city agencies that participated in the last two exercises. To design what in the emergency-response community is known as the “play,” or the narrative of an exercise, Gabriel worked with a group of scriptwriters. For March 2004’s Shea Stadium exercise, of which the central plot point was a large bomb planted in the stadium during a baseball game, one of Gabriel’s principal co-authors was James J. McDevitt, director of Homeland Security programs for Titan Corporation, a frequent collaborator with both the city and the federal government. “Each participating agency provides a trusted agent,” says McDevitt. “Working with them, we then figure out what sorts of narratives would best test those agencies. Of course, to keep the play fair, as in a real terrorist attack, none of the agencies knows the exercise narrative beforehand.”

“Obviously, we ‘kill’ a lotta people in these exercises,” says Gabriel at his desk in OEM’s bunker near the Brooklyn Bridge. “We have to imagine that any large assembly of people in New York automatically makes our major arenas, baseball stadiums, and convention centers targets. Our job is to make this play as realistic as possible, so at Shea, we had a thousand victims in the stands, we had areas roped off so there was constricted access, we had debris, we had moulage, which is the makeup for the wounds. I even had smoke machines out there. These are not clean scenes, you know.”

Gabriel and McDevitt designed an exercise in which 50 people were killed immediately (one of the first orders of business was to remove them to a field morgue) and 200 critically wounded—these people had to be triaged and evacuated. The play’s directors had the power to kill responders. “If rescuers got too close to the bomb site too quick, we gave them cards. Bang, you’re dead,” Gabriel says, smiling—gallows humor is often the mien of a terror simulation. A well-designed terror exercise is one in which chaos is meticulously arranged against the responders. One thousand ambulatory Mets fans, some more hysterical than others, were on hand simply to be, in Gabriel’s words, “pains in the butt”—in other words, to get in the rescuers’ way. The entire exercise, including the parking and access routes to the crowd, was restricted as if the stadium were full.

“The staging of the rescue efforts alone was a huge logistical problem for the rescuers. We clogged the parking lots with cars and the main stairwells and ramps with people, some of them walking wounded, some of them evacuating,” says Gabriel. “What did the fire and EMT people learn? Well, they learned that they were going to encounter, in an event of this size, victims and non-victims needing assistance; some of them were gonna be hysterical, grabbing at you. They’re what we call the ‘worried well,’ and they take up time. But if you’re a responder, you have to get your assets to the critical areas. So, how are you gonna manage that when it’s for real?”

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.

Playing Terrorist