CAPE MAY — They knew the suicide car bomb attack was coming.
“It should happen in about eight minutes,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Nick Ameen at Training Center Cape May on Tuesday morning.
Sure enough, eight minutes later, at 10 a.m., a truck ran into the galley where seamen recruits were eating breakfast and there was a loud explosion.
It was only a drill, but a drill now should help later if the real thing were actually to occur.
The terrorist explosion seemed real enough. The screaming and bleeding recruits, though made up like a Hollywood movie and acting out their injuries, seemed real enough. The smoke machine made the fire seem real enough. The U.S. Coast Guard and city of Cape May fire engines, with firefighters using charged hose lines and air packs to pull survivors out, seemed real enough.
Responses by the FBI, State Police, Atlantic City Bomb Squad, Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office, Cape May police, Lower Township police, Delaware River & Bay Authority and other local, county, state and federal agencies seemed real enough.
That was the point.
“I kind of like the feel of it,” said Ameen. “This will test our readiness for a large-scale mass casualty and enhance our relationship with our partners. In this day and age, an event like this is actually plausible.”
Cape May County Prosecutor Robert Taylor, who came with the office’s 10-member Rapid Response Team, noted two of the five people caught plotting a terrorist attack on Fort Dix were doing surveillance in Cape May Harbor before picking Fort Dix for the planned attack. Several Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists sought to do flight training at the Cape May Airport.
A terrorist attack could happen here, and one reason for the drill is merely for all responders to know each other, officials said.
“We really don’t come here often,” said Cape May Police Chief Robert Sheehan. “It’s very valuable building relations and having a friendly face to call when something happens.”
Coast Guard Capt. Todd Prestidge, the TRACEN commander, said they have had an “active-shooter drill” before but never a mass casualty event. In this case, the bad guys died when the bomb exploded so the drill was more about dealing with mass casualties than fighting an active threat.
A number of emergency medical responders took part, including the New Jersey EMS Task Force, a 300-member organization ready to respond to such events. Debra Bell, who does planning for the seven southern counties for the task force, was able to compare how they do triage with the Coast Guard’s methods.
The victims were first taken to a lawn where the initial triage was done. Cards put around the victim’s neck represented four medical evaluations: Black meant dead, red meant treat immediately, yellow was less serious so these victims could be passed over for now, and green meant they were OK.
Bell said New Jersey uses a fifth color, white, for victims that are medically OK but should be interviewed for what they witnessed. All this goes on a computer that also logs what hospitals victims go to.
The Coast Guard took patients from the lawn to a nearby gym where further triage decisions were made.
“This guy is a yellow but he’s confused. I don’t want him to wander off,” said Petty Officer Eugene Pryka as he brought a victim into the gym.
The drill included the highest security measures around the base. It was closed off to visitors. An incident command post was set up. There was a call center for concerned loved ones and they even simulated next-of-kid notifications for those injured or killed.
Some victims lay sprawled on the galley floor screaming while others wandered aimlessly through the smoke, in shock and talking gibberish. The Coast Guard’s two firetrucks arrived at 10:06 a.m. and pulled the first victim out three minutes later. The Cape May Fire Department arrived at 10:18 a.m.
By 10:20 a.m., EMTs were performing triage on about 20 victims on the lawn. Two with black triage cards were brought into the gym on a stretcher.
“We need more backboards. Let’s take them off,” yelled an EMT. The concern was for the living, not the dead.
Capt. Prestidge was pleased with what he saw but said the full performance will be evaluated later. Prestidge said each victim had pre-determined injuries on their “role-playing card.” The medical responders did not know the pre-determined injuries.
“This is so we can assess how they were triaged,” Prestidge said.
The drill also tested communications between the many agencies involved.
“The time of emergency is not the time to hand out business cards,” Prestidge noted.
Contact Richard Degener: