Deafening booms sent smoke billowing into the sky at the Port of Newark on Saturday. Delirious “survivors” staggered nearby to beg for help. Medics readied black “DECEASED” stickers to affix to blast “victims” who couldn’t be saved.
“I think somebody’s in the water!” an actor splattered with stage blood cried out. “Somebody help him!”
The explosions and fake injuries were part of a terrorism response-drill held by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey on Saturday morning, when dozens of police officers, federal agents and other first responders practiced what to do after improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, detonate.
Over coffee and danishes before the drill, planners described how the morning would unfold — the drill’s scenario inspired by the October 2000 terrorist attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, which killed 17 sailors.
“There’s gonna be smoke. There’s gonna be firetrucks. There’s gonna be ambulances,” Port Authority emergency-readiness manager Steve Pawlak said.
Port Authority executive director Patrick Foye said the agency used about $200,000 from a U.S. Department of Homeland Security grant to help pay for the drill.
Practicing together “on a hot Saturday in August ensures that if, God forbid, this were to happen, we’re as prepared as possible,” Foye said.
Planners sought to make the drill seem like a real attack: Makeup artists doused volunteers in fake blood and grafted explosion injuries onto the volunteers, who wore plastic “symptomatology” cards around their necks describing pretend injuries, medical histories and prognoses. The volunteers moaned accordingly — or not.
At any time, volunteer victims could say the safe word — “armadillo” — in case the exercise got too real, Pawlak said.
Planning for the terrorism drill, formally called “New Jersey Marine Terminals Full-Scale Exercise,” predated last Sunday’s false-alarm report of gunfire at Kennedy Airport, which caused chaos and panic in at least two terminals and exposed gaps in how government at all levels responds to disasters.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson was on hand Saturday to observe the drill.
“Given the state of the current threat environment, we have to be prepared for hazards, explosions, active-shooter situations and almost anywhere,” Johnson said. “We cannot choose where an incident like this could occur.”
Planners hoped to instill good practices in responders — and discourage bad habits.
For instance, “players” who ignored safety rules, such as the requirement to wear proper equipment, would be given red cards if they failed to heed warnings. Those cards meant they would be penalized by having to pretend to be in cardiac arrest, Pawlak said.
“They lay on the ground,” he said, “until the medical examiner comes and gets them.”