Plague, Explosions and Mystery Cargo: Terror Drill Looks Ahead

GATINEAU, Que. (CP) - The Nigerian freighter steaming towards Halifax might be laden with a toxic soup of chemicals.

At least two passengers who disembark from the Comet Atlantic cruise ship in Saint John, N.B., have pneumonic plague.

Police take down an extremist cell outside Fredericton.

Huge blasts rock London and the eastern seaboard of the United States, spewing lethal mustard gas.

In short, all hell is breaking loose: The biggest wave of terrorist assaults since Sept. 11, 2001, is unfolding with dizzying speed.

Around a large horseshoe-shaped table in a government boardroom in Ottawa, more than two dozen federal officials are hunched over laptop computers crafting new threads of the fictional scenario.

It's all part of Exercise Triple Play, the Canadian segment of perhaps the most ambitious anti-terrorism drill ever undertaken.

The week-long drill, which wrapped up Friday, included hundreds of participants from Canada, the United States and Britain.

Eighteen federal departments, as well as the provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, took part.

In the boardroom deep inside a maze of government buildings, a serious mood prevailed Thursday as the terrorism scenario escalated.

Maps of downtown London, New Jersey and Atlantic Canada dominated the walls. Two huge television screens, one beaming updates from the imaginary Virtual News Network, glared down at the assembled officials.

The latest chapter of the horror story was still being written:

Officials circulate word the ocean-going ship Castlemaine, en route to Halifax, carries a container holding chemicals for creating a weapon of mass destruction - possibly like the deadly substance already released in the United States and Britain.

A meeting is hastily called to devise a plan.

"So our decision is, what are we going to do with that vessel?" says Kelly Morris, exercise officer for emergency preparedness at Transport Canada.

In the real world, earlier this week Auditor General Sheila Fraser criticized the lack of a federal strategy guiding participation in national security exercises.

She also noted the government's final analysis of the Topoff 2 exercise, the last major drill involving Canada and the United States, was distributed more than a year after the exercise.

The Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Department says it is developing a long-term plan and funding strategy for disaster drills.

The flow of information between agencies and governments during the exercise this week has generally been smooth, said Bob Paquin of the Foreign Affairs Department's counter-terrorism division.

"There have been examples of miscommunication, or one department having a piece of information and the other not, and yet we expected it would have happened. So a bit of that kind of thing's come up," he said.

"That's exactly the point of this kind of an exercise, to make sure we all do talk to each other."

Canadian officials have been planning Triple Play since last August.

RCMP Cpl. Bruce Campbell, the force's national exercise co-ordinator, said the leadup phase was an opportunity to meet others involved in emergency management.

The work culminated in an intense week of simulated terror, testing plans and procedures officials hope they'll never have to use in a genuine crisis.

"There's a real benefit of having everybody working in the same environment here, around the table," Campbell said.

Still, Paquin is mindful that however elaborate the Triple Play exercise, an actual terrorist episode would unleash an incomparable torrent of activity.

"In a real-world situation our whole building would be lit up like a Christmas tree, and we'd have hundreds of people making phone calls all over the place."