Ohio nuke 'disaster' seems very real; Biggest National Guard drill tests troops' readiness
By Jeb Phillips
The Columbus Dispatch (Ohio)
Copyright 2007 The Columbus Dispatch
All Rights Reserved
MUSCATATUCK URBAN TRAINING CENTER, Ind. — The scenario: A nuclear bomb has exploded in Indianapolis. There are mass casualties and 300,000 fleeing people are clogging the roads. The water is tainted. Seven hospitals are destroyed.
Carlson's School for Special Needs still stands about 55 hours after the blast. Intelligence comes in that people may still be inside, although by now they might be dead.
Sgt. 1st Class Timothy Stichler of the Ohio National Guard's 52nd Civil Support Team (Weapons of Mass Destruction) has a floor plan of the school. He's telling his "surveyors" the situation. They need to take radiation readings. They are trying to see if this building is salvageable.
"What if the people are alive?" Sgt. Adam Swager asks.
At this point, about 7:30 on Saturday night, there are several reasons an observer might have trouble taking this scenario seriously, other than knowing it's a scenario.
This is not Indianapolis. It's a corner of an abandoned mental-hospital campus called Muscatatuck that the Indiana National Guard has converted into a kind of training city. It's a spooky place, something you might have a nightmare about as a kid, a 52nd team staff sergeant said, but it's not the way you'd imagine a big city after a bomb.
Some of the 52nd team members, and a Dispatch reporter-photographer team embedded with them, have been awake since 1 a.m. They had flown here from Mansfield, in C-130s loaded with the vehicles and operations trailers. With so little sleep, it's hard to take anything seriously.
But this is Vigilant Guard, the largest National Guard exercise in history. About 450 Ohio National Guard members, and more than 1,500 troops from other states, have come to see how they and local responders might deal with a nuclear terrorist attack.
Hurricane Katrina showed there was a lot of work to do in that area, officials at the exercise say.
The 52nd, based at Rickenbacker Air National Guard Base, is "a HazMat team on crack," one of its members said. When civilian fire and police have done all they can to detect biological, chemical or radiological dangers, the 52nd is called in. It has a mobile lab, tons of protective gear, and detection instruments.
It has 22 full-time members. You don't see them often, but they're at Red, White & Boom, at Ohio State football games -- just in case.
Mostly they deal with chemical and biological agents. A nuclear explosion is further down the training list, another reason an observer might not take this particular exercise too seriously.
But the 52nd does. So Swager, who was attached to the Ohio unit for Vigilant Guard from a unit in Michigan, asked his question.
"Tell them you are searching the building to make sure there are no hazards there," Stichler answers. He reminds them to put all the survivors in one room.
Swager and Staff Sgt. Dustin Hartman, a survey-team chief from Pickerington, dress in white Tyvek suits. It's the same material as a FedEx envelope, with gloves, masks, air respirators, rubber boots, all sealed with tape. Heavier-duty suits would protect them from chemicals, but radiation was going to penetrate any suit they had anyway.
Swager and Hartman set off on an all-terrain vehicle to the school building about 100 yards away.
They took a water sample from a hydrant near the building and needed to initial it with the time and date.
"We're having trouble recalling the date," Hartman radios back to the control center. A captain replies that it's May 12. It's funny to some of the observers following the surveyors, though at least one couldn't remember the date either.
Hartman and Swager circle the building, taking radiation readings (an observer uses a remote to make the detector read high radiation levels), and then they get to the front.
And just like that, there are people banging on the door from the inside, yelling "Help us! Please!"
Now, even to the civilians trailing Hartman and Swager, this seems pretty real.
A man inside the building has blood on his face and leg. A woman screams for water. It's at least 80 degrees inside.
"There are five children in the basement!" one of the women yells.
Hartman calls to them, "We are here to help you. We are going to find your kids." He tells the people inside to stay in a room where there's less radiation.
Then he and Swager, using a building map, find a ramp to the basement. They put their sensor to every door, calling readings back to the captain, and yelling for the kids. The sensor indicates one room is particularly hot with radiation.
Hartman and Swager radio the captain, asking if they should enter the room to search for the children. They get the OK, run in, yell, and run out.
They check every room they could that isn't locked. No children, though one says to the other, "I just know there is a kid under a bed and we're going to miss it."
But there are no kids. They check the entire building. Near the end, they're told the building was a write-off. Too much radiation. Check the rooms quickly, and then get out.
The people are still inside, near the front of the school.
"Did you find our kids?" one asks.
"We checked every room that was open and found no children," Hartman says. "There is a good possibility they got out."
That pacifies them. The survivors are people who live around Muscatatuck, paid to act as victims, and they had done their jobs.
Hartman and Swager drive to a decontamination post, where team members help them carefully remove their suits to avoid touching contaminants on the exterior.
Team members got about six hours of sleep yesterday morning. In the afternoon, they receive a report of a suspicious powder and go to identify it. Turns out it's cornstarch playing the role of cornstarch. At 7 p.m., a report comes in of a nearby camp with high levels of radiation.
"Let's be ready to pull out on the road in 10 minutes," said Lt. Col. David Seitz, the team commander, after the briefing.