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Simulation attacks test Seattle nerves

Seattle, May 13 (Reuters): With a booming explosion and plumes of thick smoke shrouding burned out cars and buses, US authorities launched a simulated attack on Seattle yesterday in the biggest ever test of disaster relief workers.

A similar mock biological attack was scheduled to test Chicago emergency crews in a week-long exercise in disaster management in the post-September 11 world.

The Seattle “attack” began just after 1900 GMT in an open gravel pit across the street from a coffee roasting plant and about 1.6 km to the south of the city skyline.

Three minutes later, the first of dozens of fire and emergency vehicles arrived. Fire-fighters doused the flames within 22 minutes although the acrid smoke, bearing simulated radioactive material, was carried for miles on a brisk wind.

Emergency personnel scoured the wreckage, but pulled back to don shiny chemical protection suits, temporarily abandoning scores of “victims”, when their equipment indicated low-level radiation from a simulated “dirty bomb.”

Some 200 fire-fighters took part in the exercise, though a fire official said he would have needed “a great deal more” in a real disaster.

Scores of police and emergency workers participated, several of whom would have been contaminated with airborne radiation.

Seattle mayor Greg Nickels was asked if he would hold back crews to avoid the kind of danger that killed New York fire-fighters who tried to rescue World Trade Center occupants, only to be buried under the collapsing rubble. “Absolutely not,” Nickels replied. “Our mission is to get in there and save lives as quickly as we can.”

If the fictitious disaster had been real, two people would have died and 150 would have been injured, officials said.

The simulations, organised by the department of homeland security, will cost $16 million and run from Friday in Seattle and Chicago — which will be hit by a pneumonic plague outbreak — before shifting to Vancouver, Canada. A total of 8,500 people around the country will join the exercise.

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