Pittsburgh Holds Terror Drill, Testing Bioterror Response

Mass evacuation drill held at PNC Park, tests response to poison attack at baseball game


PITTSBURGH -- Intermittent showers didn't change the plans that Mike Belluomini and three buddies made for Saturday.

"It's not every day you get to participate in a mass evacuation," said Belluomini, 18, of Mount Lebanon.

But the rain apparently kept enough folks at home that fewer than 7,000 showed up by 11 a.m. for the $750,000 terrorism response drill organized by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security at PNC Park, officials said.

Organizers were hoping that an offer of two free Pittsburgh Pirates tickets, a souvenir replica of the park, and an American Red Cross first aid kit for each volunteer - as well as a free concert by three classic hometown rockers - would draw upwards of 14,000 people. But officials were confident that participating emergency crews learned a valuable lesson anyway.

"Everybody has to be vigilant. Everybody has to be prepared. It can happen in our most rural areas, it can happen in our most urban areas," said Roland Mertz, the deputy director for the state's Office of Homeland Security.

Emergency crews will be critiqued in a report to be prepared on the drill in the coming weeks.

As a concert by B.E. Taylor, Joe Grushecky and Donnie Iris was wrapping up, a charge simulating an explosion was set off near a seating area and a smoke bomb meant to represent a suicide bombing ignited. A short time later, another smoke bomb simulated a poisonous sarin gas bomb.

About 300 of the volunteers who registered through an area American Red Cross chapter were made up to appear injured and wore orange and white tags that described their symptoms. They were evaluated and taken to local hospitals in an exercise that lasted more than six hours.

Other volunteers were also evacuated, with regular stadium personnel helping to direct them out of the ballpark. "Uninjured" spectators nearer the sarin gas, including an Associated Press photographer covering the drill, had to go through a water bath to be "decontaminated" as they left.

Michael Steinberg, 47, came with his wife, Dawn, 37, and son, Jacob, 14, to be among the evacuees.

"We knew it was a drill, but they gave you no clue as to what was happening," said Michael Steinberg. He said the family came largely out of curiosity, but acknowledged that the free baseball tickets were a factor - and they walked away with four tickets to the Washington Nationals game on June 20 and two to a Florida Marlins game on June 2.

"I think it was very realistic," Steinberg said. "Even though people knew we were supposed to evacuate, people still sat there not knowing what to do after it went off. You know, that initial 'stun factor' - What should we do?"

Prudence Norman, 49, of Elizabeth, had hoped to be among the "injured" but registered on the Red Cross site too late, after the 300 triage victims had already been selected.

"This time, I was just one of the general volunteers. I think next time I'll be one of the hurt," said Norman, who said she was impressed by the response and is now confident that she'd be safe in the event of a real attack.

Belluomini's buddy, Aaron Martin, 18, of Mount Lebanon, took a lighter view of the proceedings.

"I didn't have much to do on a Saturday morning, so as soon as we heard there were people playing (music) and you get free (Pirates) tickets, we were here," Martin said.