Blast marks start to 'dirty bomb' drill

Blast marks start to 'dirty bomb' drill »Play Video

PORTLAND, Ore. - A loud explosion, crumpled buses and cars and dozens of victims lying on the ground with authentic-looking injuries lent an air of reality to a major terrorism exercise that took place Tuesday at the Portland International Raceway, and at locations across Portland.

Compounding the realism was a cold, steady rain that made the ground slick and tested sensitive electronics equipment.

The city of Phoenix, Ariz., and the island of Guam are also taking part. The largest part of the drill, called TOPOFF 4, is taking place in Portland.

The small explosion Tuesday took place on a "set" at Portland International Raceway near a wrecked bus and other damaged vehicles. The set is designed to be a substitute for the Steel Bridge in Portland.

About 200 local residents acting as victims were then led to the explosion site. Emergency workers then commenced rescue operations.

During the drill, participants exposed to fake radioactive material were sent to OHSU and Legacy Emanuel for sorting and decontamination procedures. Many wore shirts soaked with fake blood and had stage makeup simulating burns or other injuries.

"There are many, many smaller scenarios that we don't know that are being injected in, to test out many parts of the system," Bob Porter, a Red Cross volunteer, told KATU News. Dozens of Red Cross workers are among the teams working during the dirty bomb drill.

Drew Starks (pictured below) played the part of a burn victim and is an emergency medical technician in real life. He said the scope and execution of the drill brings needed experience to emergency responders who may have only read about the procedures in an instruction book.

The drill is planned around a full-scale "dirty bomb" explosion and involves local emergency responders at the scene, in the city and on a national level. A "dirty bomb" is a conventional high-explosive spiked with radioactive elements. The resulting explosion spreads dangerous radioactivity over a large area and can make large sections of the affected area unlivable for extended periods of time.

People in the area can suffer from immediate radiation poisoning or the long-term effects of radiation exposure, including cancer.

Although dirty bombs do not explode with the force of an atomic bomb, terrorism experts believe modern terror groups may try to use them in American cities or elsewhere because they are easier to assemble and do not require the specific radioactive elements used in atomic weapons.

The purpose of the drill is to test the emergency response systems in the participating cities, along with medical response and the coordination of local and federal communication systems and officials.  The drill also helps responders be prepared for other situations such as earthquakes, major storms or other natural and man-made disasters.

Funding for the drill was paid for by money already earmarked in Oregon's budget and $2.5 million in federal funds.

Drill officials said the TOPOFF exercises originated not with the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks but with the deadly 1995 sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway that killed a dozen people and injured nearly 1,000 others.

That attack was blamed on the Japanese religious group Aum Shinrikyo and did not involve al-Qaida or a group currently regarded as a terror risk by the United States.

"TOPOFF 4" stands for "Top Officials," and the current drill is the fourth exercise. The drill concludes on Friday.