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Nightmare scenario
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Sunday, May 15, 2005

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STANDARD, W.Va. - Screams come from deep within the tunnel, barely audible amid a cacophony of jackhammers and chainsaws.

A man impaled on a metal pole pleads for his life. A mother of two is pinned under a massive concrete block. Fires rage.

Rescue workers evaluate survivors. Along roadways, the dead lay strewn like confetti after a parade. Two days later, corpses are piled high, a heap of bloody arms and legs.

They're victims of an attack on the Holland Tunnel. Terrorists have detonated a dirty bomb during rush hour. Commuters are entombed in rubble. Rescuing them is no easy feat. The work is painstakingly slow, each move carefully calculated, a life or death chess game.

It's up to a team of North Jersey firefighters and police to rescue them.

The men carrying battery-powered radiation detectors, clawing their way through rubble, are members of the North Jersey Urban Search and Rescue strike team.

This is no ordinary scenario and these are no ordinary first responders. It's unique instruction, designed to simulate a bomb blast in the Holland Tunnel. Tucked into verdant West Virginia mountains is this virtual purgatory: the Center for National Response, a long defunct 2,800-foot highway tunnel that is now a disaster response training camp.

For two days earlier this month, it became home to the New Jersey team, formed last year to provide emergency response at disasters.

Inside the tunnel, crushed cars piled high teeter at precarious angles. Trapped victims are really just strategically placed mannequins. Actors earning about $6 an hour lie amid debris portraying injured survivors.

"When I went in there, it was like 'Oh my God.' I was blown away," Paterson Battalion Chief Marty Krupinski said, referring to the destruction. "You can't get any more real than that."

An elite squad of first responders

The elite squad, composed of paid North Jersey firefighters from nine departments and the Port Authority Police, was formed because of its proximity to major New Jersey/New York transportation hubs, such as the Hudson River crossings. In the event of a terrorist attack or natural catastrophe, they would be called on to look for victims until the arrival of NJ Task Force 1, a statewide response team with greater resources, such as search dogs.

The North Jersey team's sojourn began on a cool night in early May with an 11-hour ride to West Virginia on a cramped bus, their only reprieve a 15-minute pit stop at an Aberdeen, Md., rest area. They were from Paterson, Hackensack, Bayonne, Hoboken, Jersey City, Newark, Elizabeth, Morristown and a regional North Hudson County department.

At dawn, the bus pulled into a military-style compound about two miles from the tunnel. After breakfast and a nap, they donned heavy coats, helmets with lights attached, as well as knee and elbow pads. Each city received an assignment. Paterson ferried equipment to Newark and Elizabeth teams in a Gator - a six-wheel, all-terrain diesel vehicle - something of a Jeep and golf cart hybrid. Firefighters from those departments were deeper inside, trying to extricate a wounded motorist.

The team worked an eight-hour shift, changing assignments every 90 minutes or so, before firefighters from Jersey City, Hoboken and North Hudson took over. Efforts continued around the clock, much like the mission at Ground Zero.

Before arriving, a five-man team had spent two days constructing the disaster scene, hauling in concrete slabs and totaled vehicles, strategically burying dummies near blocked passages.

Machines churned out simulated smoke, making visibility nearly impossible. Rescue teams, guided through the blackness by flashlight beams, crawled through a 48-inch-wide corrugated steel tube deep in the tunnel's bowels. It was the only access to a spot where a woman lay trapped and crying for help. But first they had to hoist up a car and brace it to create a path. Then, there was the issue of breaching a wall to get to the mouth of the tube. At one point, flames, fueled by a five-gallon propane tank, the same type used for backyard barbecue grills, accidentally ignited a vehicle. The acrid haze burned nostrils and stung eyes since no one wore protective air packs. Hours after the shift ended, everyone was still blowing soot from their noses.

'If they can't find him, shut everything down'

From his post at the command center just outside the tunnel, Elizabeth Deputy Chief Lathey Wirkus barked orders with the efficiency of a drill sergeant. Every 20 minutes, Wirkus, acting as leader, demanded a head count. When Morristown firefighter Jimmy Stanton went missing for a few minutes (he had left to go to the lavatory) all operations ceased.

"I want to know where he is. If they can't find him, shut everything down... ... NOW!" Wirkus told Morristown firefighter Jimmy Schultz, who relayed the message via radio to teams inside the tunnel.

Within an hour, the air horn again sounded, halting action: this time, carbon monoxide levels had risen to dangerous levels.

"It's not only for the catastrophe. It's for the everyday event," Wirkus said, pointing out that all too often, departments don't follow textbook regulations. "Truth be told, there's nothing safe about what we're doing. You throw safety aside because you're not going to let someone expire."

For some, the wreckage and eerie silence in the early stages of the training mission were frighteningly reminiscent of the World Trade Center attack. Back then, few departments had the tools used at the Center for National Response. The metal struts can brace up to 54,000 pounds and hold up cars.

"At Ground Zero, everything was pulverized, packed solid. We weren't sure what we were up against until we got there. We were scraping through things with our hands," said Paterson firefighter Luis Vega, who trained at the Memorial Tunnel and was one of many strike team members at the World Trade Center aftermath. "We had a couple of air filters and that was about it."

Far from the days of Sept. 11, equipment is becoming more sophisticated, geared toward catastrophes of great magnitude, much like the Holland Tunnel simulation.

Each department in the strike team will receive an identical heavy rescue truck, stocked with identical tools. For Paterson, that means receiving a Jaws of Life, rappelling gear and top of the line hydraulic equipment, about $425,000 in apparatus paid for by a homeland security grant.

"We have out-of-date equipment. The administration has been working really hard to get us new stuff, and they accomplished what they set out to do by taking on this task," said Paterson Capt. Brian McDermott. "Our department was smart enough to jump on a bandwagon."

Departments involved in the Urban Search and Rescue Initiative can use the tools in day-to-day operations, such as extricating people from cars or building collapses, or workers caught in heavy machinery. But large-scale emergency response comes first.

More than 22,000 trained

Highway upgrades in 1987 forced the bypass of the Memorial Tunnel, once part of the West Virginia Turnpike. For seven years during the 1990s, the Federal Highway Administration used it as a fire ventilation test site. Then it became a storage facility for the state's Parkway Authority.

It reopened eight months after Sept. 11 as the Center for National Response. In the past five years, the federal government spent $25.4 million to build, maintain and improve it.

The facility provides a free, customized setting for training in counter-terrorism training and responding to attacks by weapons of mass destruction. With federal homeland security grants, NJ Task Force 1 spent slightly over $30,000 for food, transportation and instructors for the North Jersey team. Seventy-two police officers and firefighters participated in the two-day drill.

Besides setting up disaster scenes, the center, run by the National Guard, also trains the military to recognize the hazards of caves, such as those used by insurgents in Afghanistan.

Since its inception, more than 22,000 civilian first responders, police, soldiers and emergency medical service personnel have attended hands-on exercises at the national center.

"This goes beyond any kind of training we get in the academy," said rookie Paterson firefighter Jon Krehel, 26, who was not part of the Ground Zero mission. "There's always a constant need for this. Hopefully, we'll never have to use it. But you never know what you'll encounter in the 9/11 world."

Reach Alisa Camacho at (973) 569-7165 |or CamachoA@northjersey.com.