The pagers sounded off in waves on the hips of more than 100 Marines late in the afternoon, just as many of them were heading home.
Some pulled U-turns in their cars, battling rush-hour traffic to hurry back to their base at Indian Head Naval Surface Warfare Center. Others, living in barracks and houses on the Charles County base, rushed to the headquarters of the Marine Corps Chemical Biological Incident Response Force.
They assembled in a large room, grabbing their chemical and biological protective uniforms, green rubber boots and oxygen tanks from lockers that lined the room. Information written on a white board laid out a training scenario: Terrorists had attacked the Metro station at L'Enfant Plaza in Washington with an unknown chemical agent. A large number of victims were reported.
Sixty minutes to the dot after the alert sounded, a caravan of 20 vehicles carrying an initial response force of 130 Marines and Navy corpsmen along with all manner of equipment was lined up by the fence surrounding the headquarters, ready to go.
That was as far as they got when Col. T.X. Hammes, commander of the unit, called an end to the recall drill Wednesday evening. It was another of the periodic practice runs the commander holds to make sure the Marines in this one-of-a-kind, 400-person unit are ready if terrorists strike with chemical, biological or radiological weapons.
Marines assigned to CBIRF (pronounced sea-berf) said they expect that one of these days, the pagers will signal a real-world emergency in the Washington area. "Unfortunately, I do," said Staff Sgt. James Sirmones, 29, speaking from behind a gas mask after he emerged from a pitch-black, smoke-filled building at the unit's training facility, dragging a child-size mannequin.
"Probably the number-one target for this type of attack would be Washington," Hammes said. "The thing we have to provide is being ready for whatever they throw at us."
The unit's uniqueness lies in its ability to detect agents, extract and decontaminate victims and provide emergency medical services in response to a chemical, biological or radiological attack. Other military units are capable of carrying out various aspects of that mission, but only CBIRF combines them in one unit.
"Do we answer the mail for everything?" asked Maj. Ron Dahart, the unit's operations officer. "We won't know until we have a real-world, no-kidding situation."
The Marine Corps created the response force in 1996 at Camp Lejeune, N.C., in response to growing concern about the threat of chemical or biological terrorism. The unit had its first test that year, responding to a pipe-bomb explosion at Atlanta's Centennial Park during the Summer Olympics.
In January 2000, Gen. James Jones, then the commandant of the Marine Corps, ordered the force moved to Indian Head so that it would be closer to the nation's capital.
At the time, little attention was paid. That changed after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. CBIRF responded to the anthrax letters that terrorized Capitol Hill that fall, conducting chemical sampling, removing 12 tons of contaminated mail and helping to demolish unusable areas. During President Bush's State of the Union address at the Capitol in January, the response force was standing by in case of attack.
The high terrorism alert level in recent days has not changed the unit's readiness, which already was able to launch a 130-person response force from its base within one hour of receiving a call, as it is required to do.
The unit also is required to be able to send a second response force within several hours to support the first unit, or to respond to a second attack at another location.
"We're always prepared, but we certainly reevaluate ourselves and make sure we're ready at a time like this," said Maj. David Barnes, specialized training officer for the unit. "These young kids are glued to TV trying to glean what's going on. We fully assume we're not going to get any kind of a warning."
In the past year, the unit has taken steps to better prepare for local emergencies, including obtaining maps and overlays showing all of the area's subway stations.
The unit also has put more emphasis on being able to respond to a conventional attack, such as a truck bomb, according to Brig. Gen. Douglas O'Dell, commander of the 4th Marine Expeditionary Brigade, an anti-terrorism brigade that commands CBIRF.
The response force also trains to deploy rapidly across the country or overseas aboard aircraft at Andrews Air Force Base, 40 minutes from Indian Head. There has been discussion at the Pentagon about sending the unit to the Middle East to help protect U.S. troops preparing to invade Iraq, and in recent months, the unit has prepared for such a deployment. For now, the unit is staying in place in case of an attack in the United States.
Hammes said the unit could make a difference if there is a chemical, biological or radiological attack on the Washington region. In a domestic deployment, the unit's role is to support civilian emergency agencies, such as fire departments that have their own hazardous-material teams and that probably would be the first to respond to a disaster.
"What they lack is large numbers to bring people out and do mass decontamination," Hammes said.
The Marines have the numbers and equipment to do that, he said. CBIRF also has a technical rescue unit that, unlike civilian counterparts, can undertake search and rescue missions in a collapsed building even if it is in a contaminated "hot zone," officers said.
The unit also brings detection equipment that allows it to do lab-quality work in the field, Hammes said.
But Hammes acknowledges that there may be only so much the unit can do. "It's going to depend on the nature of the attack," he said.
"Smallpox scares me more than anything else," Hammes added. Agents used in a chemical attack would begin to dissipate as soon as they were released, he said, while a so-called dirty bomb, involving the spread of radiological material through a conventional explosion, would contaminate only a limited area.
"With chemical, it gets better from the moment it's used," Hammes said. "With nuclear, you know the extent of the damage almost immediately. With biological, it's silent. You don't know the extent of it until people start arriving in hospitals."