The first hint of calamity came in deceptively routine form: a small fire in a rented Carson warehouse, apparently sparked by welders working on a lunch truck. But an investigation of that blaze turned up alarming details: respirators, a suspicious hookup on the truck, large sacks of rice flour.
Within weeks, those puzzling discoveries would plunge Los Angeles into a whirlwind as a routine fire probe rapidly spun into an international investigation, uncovering a terrorist weapons lab in Mexico and a plan to douse the nation's second-largest city with anthrax and ricin. By the 40th day of the crisis, panic-stricken residents were flooding area hospitals, which buckled under the strain and then reeled as terrorists targeted them as well, poisoning emergency rooms with the same deadly chemicals.
That scenario -- all of it hypothetical but built on the actions of real terrorists elsewhere -- was presented at an uncommon gathering last week: Ten of the region's leading public officials and anti-terrorism experts convened at The Times to respond to a simulated attack on Greater Los Angeles, testing their personal mettle and the region's systems for investigating and reacting to a deeply destabilizing threat.
As they did, the participants displayed an openness and cooperation that has not always marked Los Angeles' response to catastrophe. Brian Jenkins, a terrorism expert with the Rand Corp. who designed the complex scenario and guided the group through it, praised the participants' instincts, even as he questioned whether some of their choices were influenced by the presence of reporters and cameras.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday September 06, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Terror attack: An article in Monday's Section A about Los Angeles leaders discussing how they would respond to a terrorist attack referred to ricin and anthrax as chemicals. Ricin is a toxic protein, and anthrax is a disease spread by bacterial spores.
Still, there was comfort to be taken from the exercise, as the group's members showed command of the vast interagency network constructed in recent years to protect Los Angeles from attack -- even one so chilling and uncontained as that which these panelists faced.
As investigators sifted through the rubble of a warehouse fire in Carson, their first guess was that they had come upon a drug lab. The men who worked there had paid cash to rent the space, then fled when the fire broke out. But as police and arson investigators took stock of the scene, a few items stuck out. In particular, there was the unusual exhaust system attached to the lunch truck. It did not look like any pipe they had seen, and when they shared their questions with other authorities, they concluded that it resembled a mechanism found at an Al Qaeda weapons lab in Afghanistan.
Suddenly, a warehouse fire took on ominous overtones.
James T. Butts, director of security for Los Angeles International Airport, was the first to say it: The evidence at the warehouse suggested a plot to disperse biological agents.
Others quickly agreed. Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca said Homeland Security needed to be alerted, and J. Stephen Tidwell, the agent in charge of the FBI's Los Angeles office, saw the potential for disaster. "Obviously," he said, "there would be alarms going off."
Thus, within hours, the region's principal law enforcement agencies -- the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, the Los Angeles Police Department and the FBI -- already were collaborating and receiving information from fire departments and others.
For law enforcement, the discoveries triggered two responses: a rush to hunt down suspects and unravel the plot, but also an imperative to protect the public. At the same time, the suggestion that chemical agents were involved roped in another local agency, the county's Department of Public Health. There, Dr. Jonathan Fielding identified, merely from the material seized at the warehouse, what authorities likely were up against: "anthrax," he said, "and possibly ricin."
Fielding asked that the area be quarantined and that a hunt be launched immediately for the workers who fled. He recognized the situation as "extremely explosive," and urged that no time be lost.
That presented the participants with their first quandary: If the area were to be quarantined, that could hardly be done quietly. But if the public were notified of the situation, those behind it would undoubtedly go into hiding and the chance to catch them might be lost forever.
Janet Clayton, assistant managing editor of The Times and acting as the panel's media advisor, urged prompt and accurate disclosure of the situation. Clayton made that argument on both principle and practicality: Releasing details would keep the public informed, and withholding them would prove fruitless in any event. "This information cannot be kept from the good reporters in town," she said.