CHICAGO -- Emergency officials rushed to a series of mock catastrophes in the Chicago area Thursday, the busiest day of a national weeklong exercise that gave everyone from emergency workers to Illinois' governor training to respond to simultaneous terrorist attacks.
The area, which already was responding to a fictitious plague released over the weekend, was dealt a scripted one-two punch Thursday morning: a building explosion said to have left 26 people trapped in the rubble, and a chemical release at a plant about a mile away that endangered 20 others.
Dozens of fire trucks, ambulances and special teams trailers streamed into the site of the mock building collapse, which was complete with a real pile of rubble. As cranes dug through the debris, three helicopters buzzed overhead.
Sometime in the afternoon, authorities planned to announce whether terrorism was to blame for the fictional disaster.
The imaginary bad news was to get worse that evening with a mock plane crash at Midway Airport. City officials warned nearby residents about the drill, expected to generate billows of smoke and bring several emergency vehicles to the scene.
The national bioterrorism drill, which began Monday with the simulated detonation of a radioactive "dirty bomb" in Seattle, is headed by the Homeland Security Department. The exercise, with an estimated cost of $16 million, was meant to test the nation's readiness.
Pushed to the limit
"We're going to push the statewide emergency plan to the limit and try to break it," said Jay Reardon, president of the Illinois Mutual Aid Box Alarm System, which includes more than 700 fire departments. "And if we can break it, then we know what we've got to fix."
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and Gov. Rod Blagojevich toured a suburban drug distribution center where antibiotics were distributed to volunteers who reported possible exposure to the scripted plague.
Ridge said he was pleased with the response, although a full report is not expected until the fall.
"If we are going to make our response system stronger, we first have to identify where strengths as well as weaknesses exist," Ridge said.
Blagojevich said he was surprised to learn he had executive powers to let non-nurses pass out prescription drugs in times of emergency.
"These are the sorts of things we're learning from this and I think we're all better off because of it," Blagojevich said.
More than 8,500 people from 100 federal, state and local agencies, the Red Cross and the Canadian government are participating in the drill, which was scripted to end with a raid on a secret biological lab run by the fictional terrorist group responsible.