Dec. 7--CEDAR ISLAND -- When Motor Vessel Cedar Island left the ferry terminal Tuesday, its voyage started like it would on any other morning.
Then the otherwise routine trip became anything but as local, state and federal officials coordinated an effort to halt a terrorist strike on a North Carolina ferry.
The attack was staged as part of a U.S. Department of Homeland Security exercise, but the response to the hypothetical threat was intended to be as real as possible.
"We simulated this because there is the potential for a terrorist threat on a ferry or any other kind of national transportation," said Capt. W. Dean Lee, U.S. Coast Guard Sector North Carolina commander.
Coast Guard personnel participated in the exercise along with the N.C. Department of Transportation's ferry division, N.C. Division of Emergency Management, county emergency services and local EMS personnel.
Each agency played a part in the scenario, which began with a takeover of the ferry by mock terrorists. According to the exercise, the terrorists boarded the ferry in a pickup truck carrying four 55-gallon drums of explosives.
For the Coast Guard, the exercise was an opportunity for its specialized Enhanced Maritime Safety and Security Team, of Chesapeake, Va., to put its training into practice. The Coast Guard established such teams after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and the special units train to respond to threats they never want to see.
"The whole idea is that bad things can happen Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ but we want to try to stay one step ahead," said team commander Al Keith.
The specialized unit responded by boat and helicopter to recapture the commandeered ferry and conduct an on-water hostage rescue of the crew and passengers.
As the morning's events unfolded, the ferry division tested its response under new guidelines of the Maritime Transportation Security Act.
The MTSA, enacted Nov. 25, 2002, is designed to protect the nation's ports and waterways from a terrorist attack. The act requires vessels and port facilities to conduct vulnerability assessments and develop security plans.
Ferry Division director Jerry Gaskill said the agency will fully review its response to Tuesday's exercise. The goal he said is to keep the ferry system as safe as possible. The state's ferries have never experienced a terrorist situation or threat, but because they are part of the nation's transportation system, and can be isolated at sea, ferries are a potential target, Gaskill said.
"We like to think of ourselves as a soft target, and hopefully it will never happen," he said. "But we've got a captive audience, and there's always that potential."
First-responders practiced their skills with a medical triage at the ferry terminal landing, where the "injured" were brought for assessment and "transport" to medical facilities as needed.
Lynda Gaskill and Cindy Salter were among the emergency medical technicians from the Sea Level Fire and Rescue Department. Although the department serves a rural area of Carteret County that may not seem a likely terrorist target, small Down East communities host a military air base and bombing range, schools and nursing homes.
The Homeland Security exercise continues today at the state port in Morehead City. Events include the mock take-over of a 900-foot military vessel. The day will focus on cooperation between the Coast Guard, port police and local law enforcement agencies.
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