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Crews stage terror attack at Port of Los Angeles

August 06, 2004|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

Hundreds of public safety workers descended on the Port of Los Angeles on Thursday for an exercise involving a fake dirty-bomb explosion.

The event was part of a Defense Department training exercise called "Determined Promise 2004," which is testing authorities' responses to simulated terror attacks nationwide. Other events are scheduled through Tuesday at numerous locations around the country, including Ventura County, where an explosion in a container being shipped by rail is set to be staged today near Simi Valley.

The San Pedro training exercise had been in the works for months, but officials said the recent terror warnings targeting specific East Coast buildings gave the event added importance.

"I think all you have to do is look at the headlines this week," said John Miller, anti-terror chief for the Los Angeles Police Department. "These exercises are no longer [about something] that may happen in somebody else's lifetime."

Organizers said the Port of Los Angeles was an obvious location for staging an attack.

Mike Fleming, a spokesman for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, said that 3.2 million shipping containers arrive at the ports in Los Angeles and Long Beach every year. While customs has taken steps to secure the ports since the Sept. 11 attacks, Fleming said the sheer volume of containers makes the sites vulnerable.

The exercise had all of the elements of a real act of terrorism -- except for the terror.

When firefighters arrived on the scene shortly after 9:30 a.m., there had been no actual explosion. But they found a grotesquely twisted shipping container and dozens of Air Force personnel lying on the dock pretending to be hurt or killed.

The firefighters called for backup and, after a few minutes, the dock was swarming with crews. Officers moved journalists behind new bands of yellow tape. Hazmat teams found cesium-137, which organizers had placed at the site. The substance emits nonlethal doses of radiation.

Some airmen played dead on the asphalt dock. Others hammed up their fake injuries.

At one point, a Los Angeles Fire Department spokesman warned a TV reporter she was about to witness a fake news conference.

"OK," the journalist responded, taking a moment to get her bearings. "But can I ask an actual question first?"

By 10 a.m., officials had established a command center, where detailed maps, squawking radios and barking officers created the most realistic illusion of the day.

LAPD Lt. Rick De Martino briefed two Coast Guard personnel, laying out the scripted specifics with an authority that was almost convincing: "Let me brief you right now about what I know very quickly ... "

Since Sept. 11, Los Angeles authorities have staged similar scenarios at Los Angeles International Airport and the Northridge Fashion Center. Los Angeles Fire Chief William R. Bamattre said those exercises have helped his department gain practical knowledge about responding to a terror attack.

Thursday's exercise proved there were still kinks to be worked out. Although firefighters did a good job of moving the "victims" out of harm's way, ambulances were initially unable to find a path to the triage station.

Bamattre said the problem was exacerbated by the event planners, who had surprised local agencies by placing stacks of metal rods where the command post had been planned.

"It didn't go smoothly," said Deputy Fire Chief Mario Rueda, "but that's part of the challenge, to find those wrinkles."

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