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John Kelly's Washington

Death and Destruction, Just for Practice

By John Kelly
Wednesday, April 13, 2005; Page C13

You may have missed the news about the twin terrorist attacks that killed thousands last week in Connecticut and New Jersey, but John Davison had a front-row seat.

He was on a MARC train Tuesday morning when the woman in the seat next to him answered her cell phone. Said John: "She began talking loudly about needing doctors here, drugs there and counselors elsewhere to cope with mustard gas release in Connecticut, symptoms of plague in New Jersey and incipient panic in the streets of New York."

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This is quite a cell phone conversation to overhear. Most of the ones I'm subjected to are along the lines of "What? You're breaking up. No, we just went though a tunnel. Uh-huh. I'll be at Glenmont in 10 minutes."

This call was a little more dramatic. I think I might have hurled myself from the train. John's fellow riders shushed the woman. After she hung up, she said, "It's a drill."

What a relief. Say what you will about New Jersey and Connecticut, but neither deserves to be vaporized.

The Woman on the Train apparently was part of TOPOFF 3, a $16 million exercise designed to test the nation's ability to respond to a large-scale terrorist attack. TOPOFF stands for "top officials," and officials from 27 federal agencies, along with dozens of agencies in Connecticut and New Jersey, played along. So did Canada and the United Kingdom.

It lasted from April 4 to 8. The scenario included a chemical attack in New London, Conn., and the stealthy release of pneumonic plague in Union and Middlesex counties in New Jersey. "Victims" showed up at hospitals and read from cards to describe their symptoms. About 10,000 people played along in New Jersey alone. It was the largest terrorist exercise ever pulled off.

"We tested both preparedness measures and response measures, and we tested the system with as difficult a scenario as possible to find any areas of weakness," said Department of Homeland Security spokesman Marc Short. That included introducing what the planners call "injects": diabolical curveballs that forced the game players to change course midstream.

Organizers of the drill took pains to keep it from turning into something from Orson Welles's "War of the Worlds" broadcast. They took out full-page ads in newspapers in New Jersey and Connecticut saying, basically, this is only a test.

Still, I imagine there were a few tense moments on that Brunswick-line train last Tuesday. For his part, John Davison was impressed, though maybe not in the way that Homeland Security intended. "It was the equivalent of shouting 'fire' in a crowded theater," said John. "It could have started an awful lot of rumors."

And the Oscar Goes to . . .

I did something sort of like this in about 1978, when I was in high school. A rescue squad was looking for teenage thespians to pose as car crash victims for a training exercise. Fresh from my triumph as Henry, the aged actor in Rockville High's production of "The Fantasticks," I was cast as Boy With Flail Chest.

A few hours before the drill was to begin, I arrived at the Wheaton Volunteer Rescue Squad with a half-dozen other Montgomery County teenagers. We weren't merely going to read from lists of symptoms. We were going to be accident victims, or at least look like them.

A rescue squad member opened a massive fishing tackle box that was filled with stage makeup, tubes of fake blood and assorted bits of bone. He gave me a gash on my forehead and some bruising on my chest. He took a lump of putty and turned my right wrist into a hugely swollen joint. Then he stuck a jagged bone into it: my very first compound fracture.

As he transformed me -- taking special glee in making me as gruesome as possible -- he coached me on my story: I was driving a car and, my brain addled by alcohol, had struck another vehicle. I'd smashed against the steering wheel, breaking all my ribs and causing my sternum to float around unconnected to anything -- the flail chest. Because of my injuries, I would have difficulty breathing and find it hard to talk.

Oh, and by the way, he said, the rescue squad wouldn't be informed that this was a drill. That's why they were making everything look as realistic as possible. But we needn't worry. The monitors would step in before any limbs were amputated or tracheas were opened.

We were driven to the accident scene -- a residential street somewhere in Aspen Hill, I seem to remember. The vehicles already were there, big 1970s cars pulled from junkyards, one turned on its side. Looking like cast members from "Night of the Living Dead," we took our positions, some of us -- such as myself -- in our cars, others of us flung into the street. And then we waited.

In a few moments, we could hear the sounds of sirens getting closer. I closed my eyes and moaned.

I survived my role as Boy With Flail Chest, even though I had to wave off an eager paramedic several times as he tried to stick an IV into my arm. I hope I did my part to further the cause of emergency medicine.

And sometimes I think that this might be a good way to put the fear of God into reckless teenage drivers: Stick them in a crashed car and cover them with fake blood.

My e-mail is kellyj@washpost.com.

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