SEATTLE – Mayor Greg Nickels and King County Executive Ron Sims faced some tough hypothetical decisions after the mock explosion of a radioactive "dirty bomb (search)" in a car in an industrial lot.
As events unfolded Monday in the first day of a five-day national bioterrorism exercise for hundreds of emergency workers, officials were faced with such questions as whether to declare a state of emergency and how to determine the range of the radioactive plume and alert those who could be affected.
The drill, combining the Seattle disaster with a mock bioterror attack in Chicago, is aimed at testing the readiness of local, state and federal authorities. It is the nation's first large-scale counterterrorism exercise since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The idea, Nickels said, is for regional and national agencies to see where strengths and weaknesses lie.
"When a disaster occurs, people do not call the White House," Nickels said. "They call 911."
"Our first responders, I think, did an outstanding job today," Nickels said. "Things went about the way we thought they would."
Once all the data are analyzed and the decisions have been reviewed, the Seattle leaders said, they'll determine what they learned.
The exercises, which are being headed by the Homeland Security Department, will cost an estimated $16 million and involve more than 8,500 people from 100 federal, state and local agencies, the American Red Cross and the Canadian government.
The drill was being run by about 80 federal workers from a hotel ballroom in Washington. Computers projected maps of Seattle and Chicago onto large screens.
Over the next few days, a number of "patients" are to show up at hospitals in the Chicago area, suffering from flu-like symptoms. In the script, a terrorist group releases a deadly plague in aerosol form.
In Seattle's scenario, 150 people were "injured" in the explosion, and 92 were taken to area hospitals. Twenty people were being sought in the rubble and two were reported killed.
About 200 firefighters and 60 police officers participated in the Seattle drill. Ten police and 20 fire personnel, among the first on scene, had to be decontaminated for imaginary exposure to radioactivity.
There were two real minor injuries. One emergency responder suffered smoke inhalation and another strained his back, Deputy Police Chief Clark Kimerer said. Both were treated at the scene.
Meanwhile, 40 miles south, students and others at Pacific Lutheran University near Tacoma acted out a second, simultaneous attack on campus, where a smoke bomb also was detonated to simulate a car bomb. About 170 volunteers, including members of the university's drama club, pretended to be injured.
The script also called for a terrorist to run into a campus building and take hostages.
"The time to test is before such a threat arises," Washington Gov. Gary Locke said. "Prudent preparation is not a sign that we face any new or credible threat of terrorism. We expect to learn a lot and we expect to apply what we learn."
About 68,000 notices were mailed out earlier to advise Seattle residents of the operation, and media coverage has been extensive. Emergency agencies reported no calls from people worried they might be witnessing the real thing.
Within a month, a two-day conference for all participants is planned to review the exercise. By September, a full report will be submitted outlining strengths and vulnerabilities.