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It was just a drill, but the fear was real

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Downtown Express' account of Sunday's drill.

It was just a drill, but the fear was real


By Julie Shapiro


Deep in the tunnel connecting the World Trade Center to Jersey City, dozens of volunteers from Community Emergency Response Teams sat in a darkened PATH train and waited for a bomb to explode.


The bomb was not real, and it didn’t make a sound at the moment appointed for its detonation early last Sunday morning. But it set in motion a drill that marked the largest emergency response at the World Trade Center site since 9/11.


Among the hundreds of firefighters, police officers and other responders who flooded the site were more than 100 volunteers, including nine from Tribeca’s CERT, who played the role of victims. Many of the volunteers were in Lower Manhattan on 9/11, and they found mostly comfort, but some distress, in being part of another emergency response.


Ron Blendermann, a Tribeca CERT member who was near the South Tower when it collapsed, said the drill brought back memories of 9/11.


“It enabled me to bring it to a little bit of closure, by giving back what little I could give back to the rescue efforts,” Blendermann said, choking up a few days later. “It was a nice feeling to be connected to a situation where I could help.”


Blendermann and other volunteers who played victims for Sunday’s exercise said they never lost sight of the fact that it was just a drill, though the experience was intense.


Police officers wrapped in hazmat gear, breathing through respirators, sprinted down the dimly lit PATH tunnel toward New Jersey as the train cars filled with simulated smoke. The volunteers moaned and called out for help, displaying limbs covered in fake blood, with shards of glass and wood protruding. The police burst into the PATH train, wielding M-16 assault rifles and stepping over mannequins marking the dead, looking for a second bomb.


“It really didn’t look like reality,” said Bob Kurshan, a Tribeca CERT volunteer, of an earlier rehearsal for the drill. “It looked like we were in the middle of some sci-fi movie.”


The actual drill last Sunday toned the action down a little, after the aggressive responders in an April rehearsal frightened some of the participants, Kurshan said.


“People don’t like to have guns pointed at them, even if they’re unloaded, especially not by really scary looking people,” Kurshan said.


During last Sunday’s drill, the police did not point their rifles in such a menacing way, Kurshan said.


Still, Bianca Bob, another volunteer, said Sunday’s drill was “a little daunting.”


“They’re not friends,” she said of the first responders who shouted in Darth Vader voices and pierced the smoke with the laser pointers emanating from their rifles. “They’re looking for bad guys.”


Like 9/11, terrorist attacks often comprise a one-two punch, with the second attack designed to wipe out first responders, not just civilians, Bob said.


On Sunday, once the responders determined that no more bombs would go off, the second wave of emergency workers poured in to evaluate and remove the wounded. Bob was designated walking wounded, so she made her way down the dimly lit tunnel back toward the World Trade Center, led by uniformed officers, surrounded by blood-spattered volunteers playing the injured.


“I’ll never know what the first responders experienced on 9/11,” Bob said, but the underground walk made her think of them and the nine months she spent at ground zero as a volunteer. “I got a little sad.”


As Bob walked through the tunnel, another CERT volunteer lying on the tracks called out to her, “I’m an 8-year-old boy, and I’m bleeding. You’re not doing your job — comfort me!”


Bob stopped and bent over the adult volunteer, but the responders who were escorting her out of the tunnel yelled at her to move on.


“It’s about the greatest good for the highest number of people,” Bob said later, repeating what the responders told her. If she stopped to help, she would be clogging the narrow pathway, preventing officers with dollies from getting through to move the more seriously wounded.


The intensity of the subterranean drill was not for everyone.


Jean Grillo, chief of the Tribeca CERT, has been claustrophobic since before 9/11 and no longer takes subways. She initially was not going to participate in the drill but decided to play one of the victims in the station and was posted on the stairs leading to the platform.


Just after the detonation, a throng of police poured past her on their way to the tracks.


“You try to keep yourself calm, but it was very intense,” Grillo said.


As the responders rushed past, some stopped to look at Grillo’s tag, which noted that she had a broken leg.


“They would say, ‘Your leg is broken. We’re going to come back for you, so stay where you are,’” Grillo said. “They kept saying, ‘Hang in there,’ and then they would go by.”


When Grillo finally made it to triage, along with the wounded from the train and tracks, she was interrogated by Port Authority police and N.Y.P.D. detectives.


Grillo’s character had not seen anything, but people who had been on the train had more to report, including an argument on the platform before departure and an agitated man with a bag pacing in one of the train cars.


“Unless you were unconscious, they talked to you,” said Arthur Gregory, another Tribeca CERT member. “If you’re going to die, at least tell us something before you die.”


The CERT volunteers praised the first responders and many said the drill made them feel safer, but Kurshan noticed several holes. The first wave of responders to reach the train had trouble getting inside, and an observer from PATH who was in the train unlocked the door for them, Kurshan said.


Later, when Kurshan, whose character was severely wounded, was escorted into the PATH station, he was left unattended rather than being taken to triage, another mistake.


Steve Coleman, spokesperson for the Port Authority, which organized the drill with the city Office of Emergency Management and other agencies, said the participants are reviewing what went well and what didn’t.


“The reason we do these drills is to identify areas where we need to make these improvements,” Coleman said.


Kurshan said the drill appeared largely successful.


“Just the mere fact that they had an exercise is very important,” he said. “Maybe it should have been held years ago.”



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