Seattle residents were warned in the days leading up to the three-day TOPOFF 2 exercise that they might come across police and firefighters dressed in what appear to be space suits in their neighborhoods going through the motions of checking for radiation from the mock "dirty bomb" that exploded in a vacant lot south of downtown Monday.
"Residents may see people working in pairs, dressed in hazardous materials suits simulating the collection of environmental samples in these neighborhoods," Mayor Greg Nickels' office said in a statement. "Fliers informing residents and businesses are being distributed in these areas to ensure citizens understand the activities are exercise-related, and no cause for alarm."
The sight of teams in "moon suits" trudging through west Seattle and the downtown area will undoubtedly draw stares and likely produce some chuckles and wisecracks as the residents of the Emerald City go about their routine business, but there would definitely be cause for alarm if the smoke bomb detonated Monday in "SoDo" had been the real thing.
A dirty bomb is considered one of the more-dire potential threats posed by sophisticated terrorist gangs. The device is designed to contain a package of radioactive material that is released by the explosion of an accompanying bomb.
While the bomb itself would cause the immediate casualties and destruction, the larger, long-term peril is the radioactive material that is spread across town with the wind. Exposure to radiation could lead to later health problems, and contamination could force closures of businesses and evacuations that could last for months.
"Certain radioactive materials, dispersed in the air, could contaminate up to several city blocks, creating fear and possibly panic and requiring potentially costly cleanup," advised the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. "Prompt, accurate, non-emotional public information might prevent the panic sought by terrorists."
The relatively compact size of a dirty bomb has many terrorism experts concerned that one could be stashed inside one of the many cargo containers that arrive at the ports of Tacoma and Seattle, ranked sixth and eighth respectively in terms of annual container volume.
While the white smoke that drifted across the vacant lot once occupied by a brewery Monday was harmless, the scores of firefighters, police and paramedics dispatched to the scene prudently parked upwind from the detonation sight and many donned gas masks before entering the realistic drill venue that was littered with smashed buses, burning cars and the facades of bomb-damaged buildings.
The personnel on the scene moved gingerly among the wreckage as they doused the small fires and tended to the volunteers posing as victims of different injuries and howling in varying levels of pretended pain.
A few police and fire units were on the scene minutes after the first calls were issued. Reinforcements, including ambulances and heavy-rescue fire trucks, rumbled into the area about 20 minutes later.
The drill, which is also being conducted in Chicago and Washington over the next two days, is aimed at testing the skills and readiness of local police and fire departments as well as city officials who may someday be called upon to respond to a genuine attack.
(Reported by Hil Anderson in Los Angeles)