She knew it was just a drill. Yet in the pitch-black room, Cynthia Kellams could feel the adrenaline rush as soon as she made out a motionless body pinned beneath broken lumber and other debris. She and another worker scrambled to pry the man from the rubble and carry him to safety.
She emerged breathless from the darkened building at the Arlington County Fire Training Academy. "You know time is working against you," Kellams recalled. "It felt very real."
Eighteen months ago, Kellams stood on Ridge Road a few blocks from her home and watched the Pentagon burn from a quarter-mile away. She gazed in horror as victims engulfed in flames ran from the building.
"The most difficult thing was knowing what [to] do," Kellams said. "People felt helpless. You couldn't just walk up to the Pentagon."
Kellams never wanted to feel that way again. So when Arlington County offered residents an eight-week course on how to confront disaster, she and 22 neighbors signed up. Now, as graduates, they are the county's first Community Emergency Response Team (CERT).
The training program, the first of its kind in Northern Virginia, instructs volunteers in basic first aid and firefighting, as well as in how to rescue people from collapsed buildings and recognize the signs of a nerve-gas attack.
Course graduates return to their neighborhoods with emergency kits and county-issued credentials -- and the feeling they'll never again stand helpless on the sidelines.
"We're giving them the training to take care of themselves, their families and their neighbors in the event of a big disaster," said Capt. Clare Halsey of the Arlington County Fire Department. "Their task is to help if first responders become overwhelmed."
Developed more than a decade ago on the West Coast to train volunteers in what to do after earthquakes, community response training programs across the country have grown more popular since Sept. 11, 2001, said Debbie Wing, spokeswoman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which oversees the program.
By the end of the year, agency officials hope to have 600,000 Americans trained in 278 CERT programs. A year ago, 200,000 were trained, Wing said.
Several localities -- including the District, Alexandria, and Fairfax, Howard and Montgomery counties -- plan to offer the training programs in the next few months.
Since last fall, about 120 Arlington residents have been trained, and 70 are on the CERT waiting list. In Loudoun County, 16 residents of the tiny town of Lucketts began the program last weekend in a local elementary school.
"It empowers citizens to get involved in their own preparedness," said Janet L. Clements, chief deputy for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, "instead of sitting there and thinking, 'What am I going to do?' and having a lot of anxiety and fear."
In January, President Bush called for the increased training in his State of the Union speech as part of a national Citizen Corps for homeland defense and emergency preparedness. But critics said the $20 million appropriated for the training was inadequate.
With federal funding slow to arrive, Arlington is using county money to cover the program cost -- about $200 per student.
"We haven't been aggressively recruiting because we don't have the training available," said Les Garrison, an Aurora Highlands resident and leader of the county's first community team.
For the first course, residents were selected from neighborhoods near the Pentagon because they had experienced firsthand a sense of shock and helplessness after the Pentagon attack, Garrison said. Many saw or felt the hijacked plane slam into the building and then watched as the air filled with smoke.
In the days after the attack, Garrison learned firsthand how chaotic volunteer efforts can be when his neighborhood association worked at a rest station near Fire Station No. 5 in Arlington, where many emergency personnel came to take a break, he said.
Volunteers showed up by the hundreds and most had to be turned away, Garrison said. Pounds of donated cakes, cookies and casseroles were given to the needy or thrown out.
"We didn't really have a vehicle or a process for mobilizing people to help, and for people to be coordinated in providing efforts that were truly useful," Garrison said.
Garrison is organizing his neighborhood into blocks, each with a captain whose job is to get to know the neighbors and find out who has medical or other specialized training, or who might need help, such as senior citizens, during an evacuation.
His team members also have bought hand-held radios and created a communication network in case an attack cuts cell phone service. They have radio drills Sunday evenings.
Halsey said that the increased community interest reminds her of the Cold War era."It's the old days we're getting back into," Halsey said. "I remember when I was little, we had tornado drills and air-raid drills at school. People got away from that and became so complacent. We got out of the habit of being prepared."
On a recent evening, 15 volunteer trainees sat in a stuffy classroom at the Arlington County Fire Training Academy on South Taylor Street and heard Arlington Capt. Jack Devine tick off the evils -- dirty bombs, suitcase nukes, sarin gas, anthrax -- that might come their way.
He described how they should decontaminate themselves during a chemical or biological attack, including stripping off their clothes to get rid of 95 percent of the contaminants, he said.
"You're more likely to get hit by a car" than be exposed to a biochemical attack, Devine told them. "But you have to keep your eyes open and your ears open. You don't know when it's going to happen or if it's going to happen."
The class had mixed reactions to Devine's presentation. Some said they found the discussion unsettling and surreal. Others said they felt empowered by the new knowledge.
"It beats being totally ignorant and clueless," said Gary Dawson, 41, a defense contractor.
"For many people, it's an eye-opening experience," said Kellams of her training.
After her rescue exercise, Kellams went home and ordered a light for her rescue helmet. She keeps her emergency kit in the trunk of her car. She's taken additional training in cardiopulmonary resuscitation and first aid from the Red Cross. She hopes her team is ready.
"I look at the world differently now," Kellams said. "I realize I could be on the front line."